(The Center Square) – Members of both parties expressed frustration during a House committee hearing this week on a federal report critical of Missouri’s foster care system.
Almost a thousand children went missing at some point from foster care in 2019 in Missouri, according to a report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The report stated thousands of children nationwide will be missing from their foster care placements on any given day and those children often experience “adverse outcomes.” In August 2019, OIG agents joined the Department of Justice and local law enforcement in Missouri metropolitan areas to locate children who were missing from foster care. Concerns by agents prompted an evaluation. Foster care programs receive federal funding and oversight from the Administration for Children and Families.
The 35-page report found Missouri doesn’t have policies for identifying children who may be at heightened risk of going missing or interventions to reduce the risk. The agency reviewed 59 cases in detail and found:
- Missouri rarely demonstrated attempts to reduce children’s risk of going missing.
- The majority of the children going missing (49 of 59 children) had risk factors associated with a higher risk of going missing.
- Missouri rarely provided these children with services to reduce their risk from going missing as only seven of 49 case files indicated the children received those services.
- Missouri failed to protect children who went missing and didn’t effectively use resources to assist in locating them.
The report stated these children were exposed to a heightened risk for sex trafficking and poorer outcomes related to health, safety, education and involvement in the criminal justice system.
State Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold and chairman of the committee on children and families, stated near the end of the two-hour hearing her frustration with the first witnesses, Acting Department of Social Services Director Jennifer Tidball and Interim Children’s Division Director Joan Rogers.
“What I heard was a department – that has left the hearing early – that didn’t have answers to the questions we were asking,” Coleman said. “I’m really disappointed at what I’m seeing in Jefferson City. I do not know enough to know what’s happening on the front line except to see that children are hurting. And there are people on this dais who are furious.”
Tidball and Rogers produced 2016 documentation from a previous administrator allowing caseworkers latitude in documenting risk of children fleeing foster care.
“We wanted to show this is a pervasive practice,” Rogers said. “As a result, you do the work but documenting it in our system of record is optional.”
Ranking minority member Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, disputed the practice from personal experience.
“I was working in the Children’s Division at the time this came out and that was definitely not what was expressed by our program managers and administrators,” Ingle said. “I’m aware of the huge change in structure, but I’m not seeing that change in documentation. It was definitely not optional.”
Tidball said Accenture, a consulting company, is conducting a comprehensive review of the department. Compensation packages for caseworkers are being reviewed and compared to compensation of private partners.
“I wanted to let you know, for the record, that those are things that we are working on right now,” Tidball said. “I want to be able to say that this is the work you’ve asked for when you asked about staff. We will have a thoughtful, thorough review to lay that out.”
Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka and vice chair of the committee, used the harshest language to address the situation.
“We have a real problem, a huge problem,” Bailey said. “We need to get protocols and we need to abide by state and federal law because, for one, we might not get funding. If this goes on and more kids are sex trafficked from foster care, what do we do? So those two things are extremely, extremely disturbing.
“We’ve sat here a whole year at these oversight committee hearings and it’s the same thing over and over: ‘I don’t know. I have to go back and check.’ That doesn’t cut the mustard. Kids are getting made prostitutes and I do not like it. I don’t know where we go from here, but it’s all in this report. And it’s just disturbing.”
From, “Case Study: Missouri’s Efforts To Protect Children Missing From Foster Care,” most of the children had at least one risk factor associated with increased likelihood of going missing from care.