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.
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.
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?”
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.