Outagamie DA office tackles child welfare cases
County adds 4 full-time positions
By Scott Bellile
Outagamie County will address a staffing shortage in the district attorney’s office by hiring four additional full-time employees in January.
The Outagamie County Board agreed to budget for a legal assistant, two law clerks and a paralegal as part of the county’s 2019 budget that passed Nov. 5.
Employing the four individuals will cost an estimated $300,000 in 2019.
The legal assistant will be a permanent addition to the DA office staff. This employee will assist the county’s other legal assistants in the discovery process of criminal cases.
District Attorney Melinda Tempelis was granted one of the two legal assistants she requested for 2019.
Outagamie County Executive Tom would not rule out the possibility of a second legal assistant in the 2020 budget, but he said many county departments are facing their own staff shortages amid tight budgets.
“Very few departments were granted new position requests,” he said. “Revenue sources and levy constraints have everything to do with our ability to fund new positions – despite the need.”
Meanwhile, the two law clerks and the paralegal will be employed for three years. The trio will work with the Outagamie County Department of Health and Human Services to help prosecute a growing number of child welfare cases.
“Hopefully, in three years, the problem will be under control and/or the legislature will have adequately funded these positions,” Nelson said.
Nelson said 218 children in the county have been removed from their homes and are awaiting placements with an adoptive family or a close relative.
That number is triple that of five or six years ago, Tempelis said.
“Oftentimes it is linked to our opiate epidemic that we are having,” Tempelis said.
Jo Biadasz, nursing supervisor for the Outagamie County Public Health Division, said at a law enforcement roundtable discussion in February that her nurses encounter more and more premature babies who were born addicted to drugs because their mothers were addicts.
Biadasz said her nurses often discover children of addicts living in “horrid” home settings – if their parents are not homeless.
Shortage affects everyone
Tempelis said hiring the legal assistant to work on all types of criminal cases is a good start to reducing the backlog in criminal cases, but she does not anticipate a steep drop.
Significantly reducing the caseload would require hiring eight more state-funded prosecutors, she said.
The county DA office employs 29 people, 20 of whom are county-funded employees. They include support staff, administrative professionals, investigators, victim services workers and two county-funded prosecutors.
The remaining nine employees are state prosecutors, including Tempelis.
“Case-wise, because of our shortage, the prosecutors have exorbitant numbers of caseloads,” Tempelis said.
Some prosecutors have 400 cases in the criminal justice system at once, she said. In a week, a prosecutor could have 15 to 25 cases in trial.
The backlog of cases delays treatment for offenders and restitution for victims, Tempelis said.
Understaffing is not unique to Outagamie County. Statewide, circuit courts are around 120 prosecutors short, Tempelis said.
Next year, Outagamie County plans to address the prosecutor shortage to state legislators and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul, Tempelis said.
Why staff shortage exists
“Outagamie County’s changed a lot over the past 25 years, but we’ve never gotten any additional positions,” Tempelis said.
One change is the rising populations in Hortonville, Greenville, Grand Chute, Appleton, Little Chute and Kaukauna, Tempelis said.
A second change is the emergence of digital evidence has made the DA office’s work more complex, Tempelis said.
Computer and smartphone records, police body camera footage and traffic camera videos are all valuable in solving crime, but they are also laborious to process during the discovery stage of a case, Tempelis said.
A third change is new crimes have emerged.
When prosecutors became state employees in 1990, they were not fighting identity theft, internet crimes against children or the opioid epidemic, Tempelis said.
Health, happiness key to job
Tempelis said although the hours are long, she believes everyone in the DA office cares most about making families, children and the community safer.
“I work very long days and I work a lot,” Tempelis said. “It’s OK. Luckily, I love what I do and I’m very passionate about the work that I do, but I do work a lot. It’s not a complaint. It’s a fact.”
That being said, taking care of the DA office staff is critical to their serving the public, Tempelis said.
Between April and October, employees regularly worked mandatory overtime due to staffing shortages, according to Tempelis.
They struggled to use their vacation time. Two employees retired early this year due to stress.
Prosecutors who work on homicides, sexual assaults and abuse cases can develop secondary trauma from seeing things like gore and child pornography, Tempelis said.
Tempelis developed an office wellness program to help employees handle their stress and trauma. A professional checks to see if workers are healthy so that they continue to be productive and help victims of crime.
On the hardest days, the employees turn to one another and remember why they are there, Tempelis said.
“The people who want to be prosecutors, people who want to be here are those people who want to make a difference in their community and are aware of it,” Tempelis said.