Missouri gets more time to protect abused children

07/09/2014 5:52 PM

07/09/2014 9:23 PM

After years of struggling to complete timely child abuse investigations and often missing the mark, Missouri’s child welfare workers have been handed what advocates say is critical relief.

With a backdrop of young children at Kansas City’s Operation Breakthrough day care center, Gov. Jay Nixon signed legislation Wednesday that included a bill giving workers more time to investigate hotline allegations. His signature came one day after the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the state’s child welfare agency shouldn’t face court punishment if investigations are overdue.

In the 4-3 decision, justices ruled that because legislators created the law, it is up to them to decide what, if any, sanctions the Children’s Division should face if deadlines are not met. It’s not for the court to impose sanctions, the ruling said.

The two developments, advocates say, mean that overburdened abuse investigators will no longer feel forced to cut corners or rush through cases in which a child’s well-being is at stake.

“This protects children,” said Lisa Mizell, chief executive officer of the Child Protection Center, an advocacy center in Kansas City that specializes in interviews of children. “(Workers) were under these very strict guidelines that sometimes restricted them from doing a thorough and complete investigation, and it also put children in jeopardy.”

But some worry that the court ruling gives workers and the Children’s Division license to take as long as they want with investigations, eroding due process for the accused and potentially harming the integrity of cases. The decision included a dissenting opinion in which Justice George W. Draper III questioned why there aren’t repercussions for overdue cases.

“Missouri’s children are not protected from those who seek to harm them by a lengthy investigation process,” Draper wrote.

In a series of stories last year, The Star detailed struggles inside the Children’s Division, especially in the Jackson County office. Those included high turnover, an inexperienced staff, overworked investigators and a crackdown on investigation deadlines that caused some workers to feel forced to move through cases to improve statistics.

According to Missouri law at the time, child welfare workers had to complete abuse and neglect investigations within 30 days of the initial hotline call unless “good cause” existed for a delay. The law also required that those accused be notified of the conclusion within 90 days of the hotline call. The law doesn’t specify penalties for failing to comply.

Several days before the Supreme Court heard arguments about child abuse investigation deadlines, the newspaper wrote that hundreds of overdue cases could be in jeopardy of being thrown out. And, depending on how the court would eventually rule, many names could be wiped from the state’s Central Registry, a database of those facing substantiated claims of abuse or neglect.

“It would have been letting people off the registry on a technicality,” said Emily van Schenkhof of Missouri KidsFirst. “From our perspective, this ruling is very beneficial.”

Before the justices heard the case in December, the issue had been simmering in the state court system for more than a year. A West Plains, Mo., mother fought to get her name removed from the Central Registry.

Melody Frye said the state had taken too long to notify her of an investigator’s conclusion, so she shouldn’t be in the database.

In a second case, a Kansas City area woman also had sued to clear her name. The woman, a 22-year-old volunteer swim coach, was accused of having sexual relations with a 16-year-old male on the high school swim team in 2010 and sending him sexually explicit photos and text messages. She has not faced criminal charges.

Lower courts sided with both women, saying their names should be removed from the registry because child welfare workers didn’t meet the 90-day deadline. The state appealed the rulings to the Supreme Court.

The majority found that a trial court erred when it prohibited the Children’s Division from taking any action against the accused once the deadline had passed.

With the rulings, the court voided the previous lower court decisions. But it’s unclear what the lower courts are expected to do or whether the two women’s names will be placed on the registry.

Kansas City attorney Chris Mirakian, who represents the swim coach, said he was disappointed with Tuesday’s decisions.

“I fear it is possible that investigations could extend indefinitely,” Mirakian said. “… When an investigation is indefinite, I think sometimes things can occur, evidence can get lost, witnesses can move on with their life, people’s memories fade.”

And if there’s no penalty for noncompliance, he said, “then what happens? What if an investigation is two years old? … Maybe a case slips through the cracks. Well, what then?”

The legislation Nixon signed Wednesday gives workers 45 days to complete an investigation instead of 30. The law takes effect Aug. 28.

Child welfare workers are dedicated to meeting their deadlines, the governor said.

“They’re not thinking legalistically. Their focus is on the kids,” he said. “I think overall this will give them more time to do their job correctly and doesn’t force them to make an up or down call too early before the investigation is complete.”

The state child welfare agency had for years recognized the need for more time for its workers to meet the legal deadline.

Annual reports for the Children’s Division show that from 2005 to 2012, only two counties — one in 2008 and one in 2012 — had completed investigations within the mandated 30-day deadline in all cases. Some counties had a dozen overdue cases; others had thousands.

In 2012 alone, 26 counties and the city of St. Louis missed the one-month time frame in the majority of cases that were investigated. Workers in four of those counties — including Cass — failed to make that deadline three-fourths of the time.

Workers say it was only after the two cases went to court last year that Children’s Division managers across the state started cracking down.

Last July, as state leaders worried about the ramifications of recent court rulings, investigators across the state were ordered to stop working on cases more than 90 days old.

Brian Kinkade, director of the Missouri Department of Social Services, said in an email statement to The Star this week that workers will now resume work on those cases that were set aside.

“Child protection requires finding the appropriate balance between timeliness and thoroughness,” Kinkade said. “Each case is unique, and in some circumstances the Children’s Division and law enforcement need more time to ensure all evidence is considered in order to make the appropriate finding.”

That’s why advocates, unsure what the Supreme Court would decide, say they are grateful legislators worked this past session to increase the deadline.

Barbara Brown-Johnson, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center in Springfield, was among those who urged legislators to give workers more time.

“Most of the really serious cases, especially sexual abuse cases, are rarely easy and rarely quick. They can take time,” she said. “Even a few more days can make all the difference.”

To reach Laura Bauer, call 816-234-4944 or send email to lbauer@kcstar.com.

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