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.
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.
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.
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.
Neely said some of the things HCB 11 would change in Missouri law are “quick” or “simple” fixes that could have significant impacts, especially in situations in which foster children have been described as, “falling through the cracks.”
HCB 11 includes language that would update background checks on foster families so that the Children’s Division would know immediately if a foster parent is charged with a crime that would disqualify him or her from being a foster parent. Current law only allows checks every two years.
HCB 11 would also 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. Currently children are screened every two years.
The original sponsor of that language is Representative Lauren Arthur (D-Kansas City), who said it would ensure that children in foster care receive more appropriate care, and the comprehensive screenings will in turn save the state money by catching medical conditions earlier and aiding in preventative care.
Current law prevents Missouri Social Services workers from investigating reports of abuse of Missouri children in foster care if the abuse doesn’t occur in Missouri, and prevents them from communicating with counterparts in other states about abuse or potential abuse. Christofanelli said his bill would remove those barriers and fix what he called a, “bureaucratic technicality.”
Some lawmakers expressed concerns with the portion of the bill because other states might release information about abuse claims – particularly unsubstantiated claims – that Missouri would not release. They expressed a desire to see that concern addressed before the bill could become law.
The House is prepared to vote on whether to send HCB 11 to the Senate. The bill is broadly supported, including by Columbia Democrat Martha Stevens, who sits on the Special Committee to Improve the Care and Well-Being of Young People.
– Allow a child who is homeless or in the custody of the Children’s Division, but the whereabouts of his or her immunization records is unknown, to be enrolled in school for up to 30 days while efforts are made to find those records, and if needed, another 30 days after that for the child to get caught up on immunizations (found in House Bill 2139 sponsored by Representative Lynn Morris, R-Nixa)
– Define when juvenile courts have jurisdiction over a child under 21, streamlining situations in which a child is in a safe situation but juvenile court involvement is interfering with the family (found in House Bill 1728 sponsored by Representative Bill Lant, R-Pineville)