MARY SANCHEZ

Tragic deaths show need for real change at Missouri’s Social Services Department

Updated: 2014-01-10T21:39:26Z

By MARY SANCHEZ

The Kansas City Star

In a week, Missouri will have a new acting director overseeing the difficult work of deciding when children need to be removed from their homes because of suspected abuse.

The former director lasted less than six months before resigning. Two workers have been fired in reaction to a 4-year-old’s death, a chilling case where files were closed days before the little boy died.

So heads have rolled. People have been held accountable.

Don’t assume substantial change.

Finding people to blame, satisfying a vindictive zeal, says little to the broader questions surrounding Missouri’s child welfare agency. Bureaucracies often throw a few people under the wheels. Reshaping an agency’s culture is more difficult.

The Social Services Department has been pushed and pulled by the state legislature. The penchant to apply a simple solution, often a reactionary one, to a complicated problem is at play.

Dominic James, 2, died in 2002 while in foster care. Lucas Barnes Webb, 4, died last fall while in the care of his father and stepmother. Standards that were deemed too harsh in Dominic’s case, factors that took him out of his home and put him in foster care, were changed. It became more difficult to remove a child from the home.

Now it appears that change negatively affected Lucas’ case.

Mistakes were made, but social workers were also applying stricter standards implemented after Dominic’s death. The higher standard for intervention was eventually reached for Lucas. After he died.

Child experts tried to warn that this might be an unintended outcome. Essentially, their fear was that legislators had eliminated the option of “better safe than sorry.”

Realistically, there may be no way to institutionalize that the “correct” determination will be made in every case. These are difficult, often subjective decisions.

The danger is that Missouri’s Department of Social Services will continue diving for cover, as it has been doing for months, evading reporters’ questions and stalling feedback.

No one desires harm to children and families. And Star journalists who spent a week poring over records weren’t simply looking for the “gotcha.”

But Missouri must evolve to being consistently open to thoughtful scrutiny and change when warranted. That’s the far braver stand, the position that will best protect children.

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to msanchez@kcstar.com.

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