Politics Special

Gov. Jay Nixon seeks millions in new funding for Missouri Children’s Division

Updated: 2014-01-16T04:53:00Z

By LAURA BAUER and JUDY L. THOMAS

The Kansas City Star

Gov. Jay Nixon wants to pump millions into improving Missouri’s child welfare division, which has been plagued with high turnover, overwhelming caseloads and low pay, the agency’s new leader said in a letter Wednesday.

Tim Decker, Children’s Division director since November, said Nixon plans to propose “an additional $6 million investment” as part of his fiscal 2015 budget proposal. The money will go to recruit, train and retain workers; hire investigators; upgrade computer systems; and provide pay increases for more than 850 staff members.

“These investments proposed by Gov. Nixon will make significant improvements to strengthen the foundation of our child protection system,” Decker said in his letter, addressed to “Friends” and provided by the Department of Social Services.

“And I look forward to working with our many partners throughout the state as we communicate to members of the General Assembly the importance and necessity of these additional funds.”

Though the increase would represent just a small bump in the division’s total budget — roughly 1 percent — it would provide money to key areas where the state system struggles.

In stories over the past year, The Kansas City Star has exposed multiple pitfalls and problems in a system designed to protect the state’s most vulnerable children.

The newspaper found that the division had fallen short in retaining experienced workers and providing high-quality care to abused and neglected children across the state.

In Jackson County alone, dozens of veteran workers had fled the local office, resulting in a staff in which a majority had less than two years of service. A preliminary report last month by the national Council on Accreditation said the local office had to address more than two dozen issues before it — or the state — could receive renewal of its accreditation, a status legislators ordered the division to achieve after a child died at the hands of his foster father in southwest Missouri.

According to Decker’s letter, Nixon plans to spend the additional millions in these “critical areas”:

• Hiring 23 new children’s service investigators and caseworkers at a cost of $1 million.

• Upgrading the division’s computer software and systems, $1.5 million.

• Implementing a loan forgiveness program for new and current employees who work in parts of the state with high turnover as a way to recruit and retain workers. That carries an estimated cost of $828,000.

• Creating a career ladder for more than 850 staff members by funneling $2.3 million into the division’s budget. This would allow workers to earn higher wages as they remain employed by the state.

• Providing advanced training for children’s service workers and investigative staff costing about $350,000.

Nixon will present his budget proposal to the General Assembly on Tuesday.

After learning of Decker’s letter and the proposed increase for the Children’s Division, lawmakers and advocates said it’s a good step but just the beginning of what will be a long process.

“By the governor coming out in the forefront and saying we have a problem and we’re going to fund this, that means we’re going to get to work on this and the dialogue starts today,” said Emily van Schenkhof, deputy director of Missouri KidsFirst, a statewide advocacy group. “That’s exciting to me.”

Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat and attorney who handles many child welfare cases in family court, said she met with Decker this week to share her concerns. She said she is encouraged by the proposed budget increase, the conversation it is generating and the leadership Decker brings to the agency.

“He was able to talk to me about his philosophy and what he would like to do, and I’m very excited about the direction he’s taking,” Justus said. “He’s on a mission right now to go into the field with division workers and get a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on.”

Others said it is too soon to get too excited about the proposed increases.

Rep. Bill Lant, a Pineville Republican, co-chairs the Joint Committee on Abuse and Neglect, which released a report last month on Missouri’s child welfare system, saying it “appears to be broken at nearly every level.”

On Wednesday, Lant said more study is needed before the best solution can be determined.

“I’m certainly not against additional training or additional investigators, particularly additional supervisors,” Lant said. “But I want to make sure that we’re not throwing money at something like we do with education, expecting automatic results and not getting them.”

What does encourage him is that “we’re just not voices in the wilderness.”

“We are being heard,” he said. “People are understanding that we’ve got a problem.”

To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to lbauer@kcstar.com. To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send email to jthomas@kcstar.com.

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