Children’s advocate

Social work grad serves families as agency head.

As a college student, Reggie Bicha knew he eventually wanted to work with children. He just didn’t know that, some 20 years later, he’d be doing so in such a big way.

On July 1 Bicha, a 1992 UW-Eau Claire social work graduate, marked his one-year anniversary as the inaugural secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families. DCF, Wisconsin’s first cabinet-level agency devoted exclusively to serving children and families of the state, was created by Gov. Jim Doyle to unify more than 30 services previously divided between the Department of Health and Family Services and the Department of Workforce Development.

A tall order

After just over a year at the helm of DCF, which has a $1 billion-plus budget and more than 500 employees, it would be an understatement to say Bicha has a full plate.

The governor directed DCF to “restructure, retool and reprioritize” programs serving children and families in Wisconsin, Bicha said, recalling his directive from the governor. “He said, ‘Please don’t keep doing things the same way. Families of the 21st century look very different from families of the late 20th century.’”

The differences are numerous, Bicha noted.

My experience working in the field really confirmed that initial belief that if you worked really hard and were committed and developed a good working relationship with a child or a family, you could make a significant difference there, and that still stays with me today. —Reggie Bicha

“We have more single-parent families,” he said. “We have more children being raised by relative caregivers. We have the influence of technology impacting families for better and for worse in ways we never could have expected even 15 years ago. We have more children with more complex health and social needs. The list goes on and on about how families are different. We have more working parents, more kids living in families where both parents work outside the home than we’ve ever had.”

Among DCF’s accomplishments so far have been the creation of an online licensed child care search and the development of an action plan for continued improvement of the child welfare system in Milwaukee County. With the June 30 passage of Wisconsin’s 2009-11 budget came funding for additional DCF efforts, including streamlining the Wisconsin Works, or W-2, program, which serves parents of minor children whose family income is below 115 percent of the federal poverty level. The changes to W-2 are intended to help parents get good-paying jobs and provide them with better postemployment support to help them keep those jobs, Bicha said.

Children in foster care also will be helped as a result of measures included in the new budget, said Bicha, who, with his wife, Becky, was a foster parent for three years. DCF will implement training for foster parents across the state, increased reimbursement rates for foster parents and the provision of better support for nonparent relatives who step in as children’s caregivers, he said.

One of DCF’s biggest challenges has been addressing fraudulent practices by state day care providers abusing Wisconsin Shares, the agency’s child care subsidy program. Several of the fraud cases received prominent coverage by state news media.

“The new Department of Children and Families was created in part because of the recognition that the Shares program needed to be fixed,” Bicha wrote in a commentary distributed to news media in early September. To that end, DCF created a Fraud Detection and Prevention unit, revoked the licenses of 98 child care providers found to be noncompliant with Wisconsin Shares standards and put in place additional measures to stop fraudulent practices, the commentary said.

“Let fraudulent providers be put on notice that the Shares program of today is not the one they experienced 14 months ago,” Bicha wrote.

In the midst of managing a jam-packed agenda for DCF, in April Bicha was named Wisconsin’s recipient of the Administration on Children, Youth and Families 2009 Commissioner’s Award at the 17th National Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect. The award recognizes one individual from each of the 50 states for significant contributions toward the prevention of child abuse and neglect.

“We’re excited about the course we’re on with the Department of Children and Families and the opportunities we’ll have in the coming years, and we think we’ve had a good start for the first year out of the gate,” Bicha said.

Formative years

Surprisingly, Bicha began his time at UW-Eau Claire as a music education major, and he counts among his favorite college memories his time as a member of UW-Eau Claire’s a cappella group The Innocent Men. However, his wife’s (then girlfriend’s) parents, who were social workers, piqued his interest in their field just as he came to a realization that “while music needed to be a part of me, it couldn’t be all of me.”

The decision to major in social work “really was the right decision,” Bicha said. “It allowed me to work with children, which was what I wanted to do, and ultimately pursue a career in administration and management around these important issues for kids.”

Bicha credits UW-Eau Claire’s social work program — and in particular Professor Emeritus Leonard Gibbs, who retired in 2005 and passed away in June 2008 — for helping him develop the ability to think critically.

“That permission and expectation that one would think critically is something that I think is so very important to me professionally and personally, and it is a value that I continue to hold,” he said.

Also influential throughout his career has been knowledge from Nicholas Smiar, UW-Eau Claire professor emeritus of social work, about “looking at families from a systems point of view and understanding how individuals lead their lives connected to other people in other relationships, whether it’s at work, within your family, friends, church, etc., and how we can help individuals change looking at them from a systems environment,” Bicha said.

Smiar expressed pleasure that Bicha credited UW-Eau Claire for helping him succeed. He recalled that Bicha paid close attention in his upper-level social work classes and was very clear that someday he wanted to work in administration in the social work field.

“I can remember Reggie very, very clearly,” Smiar said. “Some stand out, and Reggie stands out.”

A career takes off

Following his graduation from UW-Eau Claire, Bicha worked at a residential treatment center in Prairie du Chien and then for Monroe County as a child welfare social worker. After two years, he became a social work supervisor in Monroe County’s Department of Human Services.

Following his completion of a master’s degree in social work from the University of Minnesota, Bicha was director of human services from 2001-07 for the Pierce County Department of Health and Family Services, where for a time he also served as interim director of public health. In March 2007 he became deputy secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Health and Family Services, and in July 2007 he was named administrator of the department’s Division of Children and Family Services. Later that year came Doyle’s appointment to head DCF, which became effective the following summer.

As his professional roles have become increasingly administrative, Bicha said his time as a social worker in the field continues to influence him daily.

“My experience working in the field really confirmed that initial belief that if you worked really hard and were committed and developed a good working relationship with a child or a family, you could make a significant difference there, and that still stays with me today.”

Photos by Department of Children and Families