House members frustrated by Department after report on missing foster children

      Missouri House members aren’t pleased with a lack of answers from the Department of Social Services in the wake of a federal report slamming its lack of response when children in foster care go missing.

Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      The U.S. Department of Health and Senior Services’ Office of the Inspector General report is based on 2019 data and was released last week.  It said the state does not properly report when children are missing and doesn’t do enough to keep them from going missing again, if they are found.

      “I was shocked by the scope of the report but I was not surprised by the content,” said Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R-Arnold), Chairman of the House Committee on Children and Families, which met Tuesday in response to that report.

      That study found that 978 children went missing from state care at some point during 2019.  In looking closely at the handling of 59 cases of children missing from foster care, it found that in nearly half there was no evidence that the state had reported those children missing as required by law.

Department of Social Services Acting Director Jennifer Tidball and Children’s Division Interim Director Joanie Rogers testify to the House Committee on Children and Families (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      The Committee heard testimony from Department of Social Services Acting Director Jennifer Tidball, who said many of the policy issues cited in the report stemmed from a previous administration.  She produced a 2016 memo from then-director Tim Decker that allowed caseworkers to quit some practices and documentation, some of which she says has been resumed since 2019.

      Coleman and other lawmakers were frustrated by what they saw as a “passing of the buck,” trying to blame that earlier administration, and a failure to follow the law and to implement programs the legislature has authorized to help the Division keep foster kids safe.

      “If the tools that have been given by the legislature have not been utilized and if the state and federal laws are not being followed because it’s the policy of the department, what enforcement mechanism could the legislature use to induce you to follow state and federal statute?”

      The top Democrat on the committee, Keri Ingle (D-Lee’s Summit), said Tuesday’s hearing was beyond frustrating.

      “What do we do if our own departments are telling us that they’re not following state and federal law and they’re not following their own policies and they’re not taking us up on additional resources when we’re offering additional resources?”

Representative Keri Ingle (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Coleman said she was troubled that the Department did not today provide much information outside of what was in the federal report and even challenged its findings.  She said the next step will be to hold a hearing focused on possible solutions.

      “We’re going to continue to work and see what pressure we can put on the Department to continue to follow state and federal law.  The committee will continue to hold hearings.  We’ll probably have one more and then we’ll have a report with recommendations and I would think that you’ll see legislation that comes out of this process,” said Coleman.

      After Tidball’s testimony the Committee heard from several child welfare advocates, offering their response to the report and possible responses, however Tidball and her staff left the hearing shortly after she spoke.

Extensive Foster Care reforms passed in 2018 session set to become effective

The Missouri legislature this year passed a number of provisions aimed at making life better for children in the state’s foster care system.  Legislation that has become law would help children get an education, proper medical care, and ease their transition out of state care.

Representative Jim Neely carried Senate Bill 819 in the House and chaired a committee tasked with examining issues related to foster care. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) in January created the Special Committee to Improve the Care and Well-Being of Young People, to focus on foster care issues.  That committee and its chairman, Representative Jim Neely (R-Cameron), handled many of these provisions and oversaw combining several of them into one bill, House Committee Bill 11.  Many of them later became part of Senate Bill 819 which was passed and has been signed into law.  The provisions in that bill become effective August 28.

The Director of Missouri’s Office of Child Advocate, Kelly Schultz, has been a foster parent to 17 children over the years.  She said both as a foster parent and as the director, this year has been “huge,” for professionals, families, and most importantly children in foster care.

“Just to recognize what the professionals in foster care and what the foster families go through, and that really talking about it and just going through and looking at just everyday decisions that we make – as the legislative body, as the executive branch and policy – what those decisions are and how they impact the children in care,” said Schultz.

She said this year the legislature took steps toward doing the most important thing changes can do for children in Missouri:  to “normalize” their lives relative to those of their peers.

“Normalizing mistakes, normalizing learning, because that’s honestly what the teen years are about a lot of times, is testing boundaries, learning from that, moving forward, taking chances and risks,” said Schultz.

Schultz described some of the changes the legislature approved this year as “low-hanging fruit;” issues that were easily fixed that could have a major impact on the lives of children and those who work with them.

One example is a provision that allows children in state care to get bank accounts in their own name after they turn 16.  That measure was originally found in a bill handled by Representative Don Phillips (R-Kimberling City).

“I think it really gives the foster children some freedom, it gives them some independence, some responsibility, and they don’t have to have a co-signer or anything like that where most would have to have, and I just think it’s a wonderful opportunity for them,” said Phillips.

House Speaker Todd Richardson in January created the Special Committee to Improve the Care and Well-Being of Young People, which spent much of the 2018 session examining foster care issues. Much of its work became law in SB 819. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Schultz said as a foster parent, that provision doesn’t just help children.  She was once “on the hook,” when a child whose account she was a co-signer on overdrew that account.

Another provision will allow fees for birth, death, or marriage certificates to be waived if those documents are requested by certain state agencies on behalf of a child under juvenile court jurisdiction.

The sponsor of the original legislation dealing with that, Representative Mike Kelley (R-Lamar), said the fees for those documents might be considered nominal to most people, but they can seem insurmountable to children trying to gain their independence.

“It’s hard for most citizens to realize that $10 or $15 to someone who doesn’t have a job and has no way to make income is a huge amount of money and a burden upon those citizens that truly are wards of the state that we should be looking out for and doing what we can to help them be successful,” said Kelley.

Also included in SB 819 are provisions to:

– Allow a child who is homeless or in state care and who has not received all his or her required immunizations to enroll in school, daycare, preschool, or nursery for up to 30 days while he or she begins getting caught up on those immunizations.

– Expand assessment and treatment services for children in foster care.  It would require such services for all children in foster care – currently it is required only for those under the age of ten – and would require that those services be completed in accordance with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ periodicity schedule.  Current law requires screenings of children in state custody every six months.

– Allow minors to contract for admission to a rape crisis center if qualified as specified in the act

SB 819 also creates the “Social Innovation Grant Program.”  It will create a state program to fund pilot projects that seek to address social issues such as families in generational child welfare, opioid-addicted pregnant women, or children with behavioral issues who are in residential treatment.  Projects receiving grants should have the potential of being replicated to get the most out of state funds and address such concerns.

Earlier stories:

House prepares extensive foster care reform legislation