The Jackson County Children’s Division has fallen below national accreditation standards and must correct inadequacies, including high caseloads, poor documentation and worker inexperience, according to a preliminary report obtained by The Star.
Until the Jackson County office clears those hurdles, neither it nor the state Children’s Division can be reaccredited.
In the extensive and sometimes critical report, the national Council on Accreditation listed more than two dozen problems — many of which The Star detailed in recent stories — that need corrective action.
The Children’s Division has until the end of January to respond to accreditation officials, according to a memo dated Dec. 2. The office will have to provide specific evidence to show that the problems have been fixed or are being addressed.
Falling short of the accreditation standards “is a horrible backslide,” said Lori Burns-Bucklew, a lawyer who represented Jackson County children in a lawsuit years ago to improve foster care and child welfare.
Officials with the Missouri Department of Social Services, the agency that includes the Children’s Division, did not respond to some questions about the recent report or say how they intend to resolve the problems.
But a spokeswoman did say that as the Jackson County office goes — as well as other regional offices across Missouri — so goes the state agency.
“All counties in Missouri will need to be found in compliance with COA standards before the (state) Children’s Division is reaccredited,” DSS spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel said in an email.
The state spent nearly $20 million to achieve accreditation four years ago as part of an overhaul of the child welfare system.
In the two years since a new leader came to the Jackson County Children’s Division, the office has come under criticism from advocates, foster families and parents who accuse it of regressing in the services it provides. They complain that the once-heralded agency has lost sight of its mission to stand up for the county’s most vulnerable children.
The accreditation reviewers’ report mirrored several problems exposed by The Star in mid-September. The newspaper found that more than 180 employees in the Jackson County Children’s Division — including supervisors, front-line investigators and program managers — had quit or been forced out since the new regional director, Tanya Keys, took over in October 2011.
Although social service agencies often see turnover, experts said the rate in the Jackson County office, and the departure of so many longtime workers, was anything but ordinary.
The Star also found that most of the children’s service workers in the Jackson County office had less than two years of service, a revelation that experts and advocates said was appalling in a system where it can take two years just to fully understand the job. And the newspaper reported that the workers’ caseloads often exceed the standard set by the Council on Accreditation, the national accrediting body for child and family agencies.
The accreditation reviewers agreed.
“Caseloads in excess of standards, combined with a lack of experience of most workers, hinder the ability of workers to facilitate timely permanency for children,” their report said.
When case files stack up, workers can’t spend as much time rooting out abuse or other problems inside a troubled family. That can affect children’s futures.
“I don’t think anyone is denying it’s hard work,” said Sister Berta Sailer, co-founder of Operation Breakthrough and a longtime child advocate, referring to the pressures and demands on Children’s Division workers. “We just aren’t providing as a society for the needs of our children. We aren’t.”
Among the report’s highlights:
• Nearly three-fourths of alternative care workers, who handle foster care cases, had been at the agency for less than a year.
• Nearly half of the workers in child protective services in the county office do not have a bachelor’s degree in social work or a comparable human service field with two years of related experience.
• The majority of workers and supervisors in Jackson County’s foster care division also have been in their positions less than one year.
“Due to this, supervisors are challenged to find the time to give the additional support needed by all of the new staff,” the report said.
• Turnover within the Jackson County office has resulted in multiple workers being assigned over the lifetime of a case. In September, the office reported that the average number of workers handling a single case was four.
• Only 50 percent of foster homes overseen by Jackson County were relicensed in a timely manner.
“These are people that are taking care of somebody else’s kids,” Burns-Bucklew said. “They are taking care of the state’s kids. And when we allow the state to take these kids into custody, these are the kids of all of us.”
• Twenty-one percent of the children — one in five — served by the division are not seen monthly by a caseworker, as required by policy.
Without seeing a child each month, “how do we know that child is safe?” said attorney Jill Katz, who has worked child welfare and adoption cases for many years. “The family’s needs also may not be met.”
One reason for a lack of visits can be overwhelming caseloads. Reviewers pointed out that workers in alternative care and investigations have been forced to juggle too much of a load. In foster care, the current average is 31 cases per worker, the report said. The national standard calls for no more than 18 children.
In its report, the accreditation team noted that many positions were vacant.
“The average would change to 16 cases per worker if all the positions were filled,” the reviewers said.
Caseloads are a concern for many involved with the Jackson County child welfare system.
“Child safety cannot be assured when people are too busy responding to crises to do their jobs well,” said Lori Ross, president and CEO of the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association.
Richard Klarberg, president and CEO of the Council on Accreditation, said nearly 20 percent of the organizations that go through the reaccreditation process are asked to provide additional information after their site visit.
“It’s a rather rigorous process,” Klarberg told The Star before the review team visited Jackson County in early October. “We want organizations to earn the COA accreditation. We don’t want to have COA’s Good Housekeeping Seal, so to speak, on an agency that’s not a good agency.”
The purpose of reaccreditation, he said, is to make sure an agency is properly implementing the standards it said it would practice.
“On the second go-around or thereafter, we’re saying, ‘We know you’ve got the policies, we know you’ve got the procedures. Now let’s demonstrate that you’re still implementing them.’”
Long before the state received accreditation, a consent decree had loomed over Jackson County for more than two decades. The lawsuit that led to the consent decree aimed to improve the lives of children in foster care by limiting employee caseloads and providing more oversight. In 2006, the lawsuit was settled and the county soon became a statewide model for good child welfare.
Burns-Bucklew said the recent report from the reaccreditation team was alarming.
“And it’s not in just one area,” she said. “It makes a difference in outcomes for families.”
What worries her and others is where the agency goes from here, and how it will attain reaccreditation.
“If these were technical things, like whether or not there are adequate documents on file, whether or not they had release of information forms filled out properly, those are things that are fixable, that are amenable to a quick fix,” she said.
“But having unqualified staff, having inadequate staff and frankly not even seeing the children once a month? That is horrible, just horrible.”
Rep. Jeremy LaFaver has met with state leaders in the past year to discuss concerns regarding child welfare in Jackson County. The recent report doesn’t cause additional worries, he said.
“Knowing the accreditation process, this is just a piece of that process,” said LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat. “One of the good things about the Council on Accreditation and the process they go through, they highlight areas that could stand some improvements.
“This report doesn’t make me more concerned than yesterday. It makes me more optimistic — it gives people more information than they originally had.”About the review
Missouri’s child welfare system is seeking renewal of its accreditation, which lawmakers ordered the state to achieve after the death more than a decade ago of a 2-year-old foster child in southwest Missouri.
The national team of professional reviewers visited the Jackson County Children’s Division office in early October, meeting with advocates, workers and families well aware of recent turmoil within the office.
The Missouri Department of Social Services told The Star that four reviewers with the Council on Accreditation participated in the Jackson County site visit.
They conducted 45 interviews, including Children’s Division workers, supervisors, specialists and management staff. Interviews also were conducted with representatives from law enforcement, schools, service providers, the Child Abuse and Neglect Review Board, Jackson County Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), the Office of the Guardian ad Litem, the Jackson County Family Court Judge and Commissioners and Juvenile Office, and the Local Investment Commission.
Other agencies interviewed included Cornerstones of Care, Crittenton and the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association. The reviewers also conducted scheduled in-home visits with a kinship provider, a biological parent with an open family-centered services case and a foster/adoptive parent.
A DSS spokeswoman said the COA has completed visits at eight sites and the agency’s central office. Three sites, which include multiple counties, were deemed to be in compliance with COA standards. Four others, including Clay, Platte and Jackson counties, as well as the central office, required a response asking for more information.
The review team will visit six other sites, including Cass County, from January through June.