COLUMBIA, Mo. (KMIZ)
Experts, politicians and advocates have agreed for years -- Missouri's foster care program has problems.
In May, close to twice as many kids were in foster care in Missouri as expected for a state of its size, the program's director said. Advocates and foster care workers say this has stretched resources in the system thin and led to poor outcomes for kids.
But there are plans meant to address those problems.
Gov. Mike Parson approved $33.3 million last month to improve the Children's Division, including better salaries for workers and new positions meant to keep kids in their homes and out of foster care.
Children’s Division director Darrell Missey presented a plan to the state legislature this year with a focus on staffing and creating prevention programs. The plan was supported, and Missey said this $33.3 million will go directly toward solving those issues.
Staffing and pay
The plan stated that starting salary for a Children's Division worker in Missouri was $39,000, while surrounding states pay around $44,000. Missey said since the plan's approval, including Parson’s 8.7% raise for state workers, base pay has now risen to $42,000. The plan also aims to provide additional pay for years of service.
“The first thing is the stabilization of the force,” Missey said. “The raise has happened for our people and consequently we are hiring more people than are leaving for the first time in a while.”
Missey said case managers are supposed to have 15 kids per worker, but most case managers in the state have more than that. The plan states it's almost always more than 25 and frequently over 30. Sometimes, the number is as high as 60.
Abigail Smith, the social service unit supervisor for Boone County Children’s Division, said low staffing and higher caseloads cause things such as paperwork, contact with therapists and entering data to get pushed to the side, further slowing down the foster care process.
“When they have higher caseloads, they can't do the work that we want them to do,” Smith said. “They can't get kids permanency as fast if their caseloads are higher.”
Missouri had 13,181 foster children in its care as of May of this year, according to the Department of Social Service’s website. Missey said a state this size should have closer to 7,000 to 8,000 foster kids.
The plan presented to the state legislature this year said Missouri overuses the intervention of foster care, stating, “Missouri’s child welfare system needs to change from a reactive model that places a lot of children in foster care to a proactive and preventative model that works to keep children safe without upending their lives, which is better for both our kids and the budget.”
Prevention services will focus on keeping children in their homes whenever possible. Two specific programs mentioned in the plan are Family Centered Services and Team Decision Making.
Missey said Family Centered Service workers would be used when a family needs some help and guidance and the worker goes into the home to work with them.
The plan states Team Decision Making coordinators would work with families by "calling together a parent’s support system to find solutions for problems that would otherwise land children in foster care.” Missey said these could be with parents who have poverty, mental health or addiction issues.
“We bring these people around a table and ask some questions like, ‘Can we remove the danger instead of removing the child?’” Missey said.
He said the legislature also approved new attorneys to work on the legal side of cases.
“If you slow down people coming in and you speed up people going out, we should be able to reduce the number (of kids) to something that’s normal, that’s more in line with where the rest of the country is,” Missey said.
The plan further states that it costs the state $25,000 per year to keep one child in foster care, and every reduction of 1,000 kids would save the state $25 million per year.
Not only are fewer kids in foster care good for the state, but it’s also good for the kids. The plan said every time a child is removed from a home, it causes more trauma to that child. Kari Hopkins, COO at Coyote Hill, said she sees the value in preventative services.
“Every move a child makes is another traumatic loss for them, even when it is for their own safety,” Hopkins said.
Missey said the full effect of these changes will take a few years to begin to see, and he expects to ask for more things at the next legislative session. After the Children’s Division has seen seven directors in the last six years, he said he intends to stay until he feels everything is in place to make the reform permanent.
“Every one of these families is our family, and every one of these kids is us,” Missey said. “So, it is hugely important that we handle this in a way that is good for those kids, that is fair to those children and families and that is as compassionate and merciful and thoughtful as possible.”
Tune in Monday to ABC 17 News at 10 for an investigative report into how the Missouri Children’s Division monitors and cares for foster children who have gone missing from the system.