Missouri’s child protection system is faltering again

A decade ago, Missouri leaders and lawmakers promised Sidney James that his son’s death wouldn’t be in vain.

They vowed that Missouri’s child welfare system would improve so children like 2-year-old Dominic, a boy who liked to play with his new basketball hoop and wrestle, would be protected by a more efficient, accountable and family-centered Children’s Division.

But many say the state’s system is no better now than it was when Dominic died at the hands of a foster parent.

“Honestly, in my heart, I don’t feel anything’s changed,” his father says.

Sweeping legislative reforms and an overhaul of the system emphasized keeping families together, but today fewer families are receiving services designed to do just that.

Lawmakers also hoped spending $20 million to obtain accreditation from a national agency would end problems such as overwhelming caseloads. Yet workers in parts of the state still juggle two or even three times as many cases as the national standard.

Meanwhile, a drumbeat of tragedies continues.

In the past year and a half, a young girl said she was forced to sleep in the family’s basement amid raw sewage and was not allowed to go to the bathroom inside. A frail teenager in dirty clothes was found handcuffed to a steel pole in his basement, shivering and curled in a fetal position.

A 4-year-old boy died from abuse even though the state knew weeks earlier that he had cried out for help. And a 10-year-old girl whom the state had tried to help years before was found emaciated in a locked closet.

All of that was just in the Kansas City region.

“The system of child protection should be constantly improving, not going backwards,” said Lori Ross, executive director of the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association. “ I think we can do a hell of a lot better.”

Three months ago, The Kansas City Star reported that dozens of experienced workers had fled the Jackson County office of the Children’s Division, resulting in a staff in which a majority of workers had less than two years of service. A preliminary report this month by the national Council on Accreditation confirmed the newspaper’s findings, identifying inexperience and high caseloads as serious concerns.

Now a closer look by The Star at other parts of the state has found similar problems revealing systemic failures. The Children’s Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services also has fallen short in retaining experienced workers and providing quality care to vulnerable children.

• Despite the narrowed focus on keeping families together after Dominic James’ death, records show that nearly 2,000 more families were denied intensive in-home services last year than in 2005, the first full fiscal year the law was in effect. Those services are intended to prevent kids from going into state custody.

• Missouri ranks lowest in the country for average salaries paid to state employees, including Children’s Division caseworkers. Because of that, skilled workers often leave for jobs in the private sector or in schools and hospitals, leading to an ever-growing turnover rate.

• High-quality child welfare does exist within some Children’s Division offices, but practices across the state — sometimes even within a county — put families at risk for receiving poorer services than their neighbors.

Though there is turmoil across the system, advocates statewide speak highly of DSS acting director Brian Kinkade. They say he is dedicated to protecting Missouri’s abused and neglected children. In an interview with The Star in July, Kinkade said workers, supervisors and division leaders believe in what they do.

And the addition last month of Tim Decker as the new Children’s Division director, many say, is a step toward reform that’s desperately needed. In an interview this month, Decker said he is well aware of the concerns with the state system but doesn’t agree with those who say it’s broken.

“I think we have an accredited system that has a lot of strengths,” Decker said. “And broken implies that there’s not strengths that we can build upon. Would I characterize it as in need of improvement? Absolutely.

“I think the children and families and communities of our state deserve for us to focus on ongoing improvement and continuous improvement and for us to hold ourselves accountable for results and continuing to improve those results over time.”

Lori Burns-Bucklew, a Kansas City attorney who represents children and families in family court, has watched the system closely over the years.

“I will give them credit for passing the Dominic James law and releasing the funds to get accredited,” she said. “They had to support that, and they did.

“But they think, ‘Well, we did it, it’s done,’ 

” she said. “There has got to be an ongoing commitment and ongoing attention to this; you can’t just say ‘everything is fixed’ and turn your back.”

Some lawmakers contacted by The Star say they understand that. And they know that state leaders and legislators must step up.

“We say that we care deeply about children, and we allow this to occur,” said Rep. Rory Ellinger, a University City Democrat and member of the Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. “We say we love children, but we’re not going to give you any more money. I’m very embarrassed by that, and I’m very angry. Some kids are getting hurt.”

Families losing out

When Dominic James entered foster care in June 2002, neither of his parents had been accused of child abuse or neglect.

The toddler was taken into custody by police officers after a domestic dispute. According to Sidney James, Dominic’s mom had been drinking and planned to get more alcohol, so he flagged down a passing police car.

“I was going to scare her,” said James, now 61. “It didn’t work out that way.”

The incident with Dominic’s mom escalated. Officers wouldn’t let James take his son because he didn’t have a place of his own to go that night. James thought Dominic would spend the night with his maternal grandparents and he’d pick him up in the morning.

Instead, the boy ended up in a foster home in nearby Willard. And James’ heart sank. He had always vowed he would be with his son, even whispered it into Dominic’s ear the day he was born.

“I told him I would never leave him like my father left me,” said James, who didn’t have a relationship with his dad until he was a teen.

In the little more than two months he was in foster care, Dominic was rushed to a Springfield hospital twice. The second time he slipped into a coma and died of shaken baby syndrome. His foster father, John Dilley, was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison, where he remains.

Dominic, child advocate Shari Finnell said, “should never have been in the system.” Finnell was challenging the child welfare system at the time Dominic died.

Within months of the incident, then-governor Bob Holden called for an investigation of the Greene County system that eventually led to a statewide overhaul. Even the agency’s name changed, along with its structure.

“The public was outraged at what had happened,” Holden said in a telephone interview from St. Louis. “And sadly, when there’s no real crisis, people just kind of say, ‘Well, we’ll patch it up. We’ll make do.’ And I made the decision that we weren’t going to patch it up. After Dominic’s case, it was an issue whose time had come.”

When lawmakers studied the problems, they zeroed in on families and how to keep children safe in their homes.

“A system that was meant to protect children was harming them,” said former House speaker Catherine Hanaway, a St. Louis County Republican who was a key sponsor of the measure named for Dominic. “We didn’t want to overreact to some tragic situations, but it seemed like the balance was weighted way too heavily against family preservation.”

She and other lawmakers eventually pushed through a shift in philosophy. The law increased the standard of evidence needed to prove abuse and neglect and highlighted the desire to keep families together. The goal was to preserve the family unit if possible and stem the flow of children into foster care.

Yet a decade later, the number of kids in state custody hasn’t budged much. In fact, in fiscal 2005, 17,124 children were in state custody. The number last year: 16,487, a decline of less than 4 percent.

And according to state records, despite the effort in 2005 to keep families intact, fewer last year received intensive in-home services meant to shield children from abuse while keeping them out of foster care. Eight years ago, 1,880 families were accepted to receive the services; last year, 1,767 families.

DSS spokeswoman Rebecca Woelfel did not answer a question about why fewer families were being served. DSS officials note that in some cases, families might decline the services. But if they do, that could put them at greater risk of losing custody of their children.

The fact that more hasn’t been done to preserve families “makes me sad,” Hanaway said.

“There are families that have tremendous struggles (but) the parents want to be good parents,” she said. In those “fixable situations,” using the state’s resources to pull children from their homes “is not only shortsighted, but it’s cruel to those families and kids.”

Investing in front lines

The QuikTrip near one of the Children’s Division offices in St. Louis was hiring an assistant manager a few years ago. On the door was a sign: “Starting salary: $32,000 with benefits.”

Child welfare workers reacted with a half joke, half lament.

“We’d say, ‘Well, we could just quit and work at the QuikTrip and make more money,’ 

” said Bradley Harmon, who worked in the office.

For many years, pay has popped up as a main complaint of people inside and outside the state’s child welfare agency. The job is rougher and more stressful than most. Workers encounter gruesome child abuse cases, people living in squalor unable to feed their children, combative parents who think the state is out to get them.

“This is grueling work, and we need passionate people working in this field,” said Barbara Brown-Johnson, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center in Springfield. “And sometimes we, as a state, beat the passion out of them by not trusting them, supporting them.”

Indeed, roughly 1,170 supervisors and children’s service workers across the state make $32,000 or less, according to a June 2012 Children’s Division report. Only three employees make more than $40,000.

According to a 2012 report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary for a state worker in Missouri is $38,195 — the lowest in the country. The report doesn’t break out pay of state social workers.

A decade ago, as legislators crafted the Dominic James law, groups said better wages were among the priorities. Early this year, members of three state workers unions — Harmon leading the social services’ cause as president of Communications Workers of America Local 6355 — rallied on the state capitol steps to protest dismal salaries.

And the Kansas City Child Abuse Roundtable Coalition is calling on the 2014 legislature to raise pay for Children’s Division front-line employees and supervisors.

Low wages have been one factor in the high turnover affecting offices statewide. In Jackson County, the turnover rate this year hit 46 percent.

Workers can’t get by on the current pay, said Lisa Mizell, chief executive officer of the Child Protection Center in Kansas City. Two years ago, she knew a Children’s Division caseworker — with a master’s degree — who had to wait tables at night to make ends meet. Another supervisor, also with a master’s degree, worked as a receptionist at a hair salon on weekends.

“I think that shows amazing dedication and passion from those doing the front-line work,” Mizell said. “I know of many people who have had to take on two jobs.”

Not only are social services employees underpaid, they also are crippled by the work coming in.

For years, mushrooming caseloads have plagued child welfare in the state, even though that was one of the key complaints lawmakers tried to address more than a decade ago.

But less than two years after the Dominic James law went into effect, the problem seemed no better. St. Louis workers protested in 2006, saying they weren’t able to pay enough attention to children and families because they had been assigned too many cases.

Earlier this year, a St. Louis County worker who had been with the Children’s Division for 22 years had 107 overdue investigations, plus new ones that kept piling on her desk.

Another investigator in her office was so stressed that she asked for one week off the rotation for new cases so she could catch up. She was denied, and she ended up quitting.

“You’re putting out fires; you’re not really protecting kids,” said Chris Wenzel, who left the St. Louis County office in September.

When she quit, she had 60 cases, including 45 to 50 investigations that were over the 30-day deadline for completion set by state law.

A supervisor in St. Louis County told The Star she has one alternative care worker who has more than 40 cases. And some investigators, she said, are getting eight to 10 new cases a week.

The state needs to do something about the low pay and caseloads, said Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat who formerly worked as a lobbyist for children’s issues.

“We need to do more to take care of the people on the front lines,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s about making the lives of children better.

“We’re not selling cellphones, not flipping burgers or making tacos. We’re saving lives.”

Subjective system

Some parents lose their children because of unsanitary home conditions and fight for months to get them back.

Others with similar conditions can clean the home, take parenting classes and get their children back relatively quickly.

Workers in some parts of the state have been known to provide extensive assistance to families, such as finding beds for children who have been sleeping on the floor, or getting the children extra academic help. Others may be too overburdened with cases to provide that assistance.

And policies may be interpreted one way in one region and differently in another.

“There are pockets of good work,” said Joy Oesterly, executive director of Missouri KidsFirst, a statewide advocacy group. “But inconsistency is a huge issue we have. I totally understand the need for counties and communities to do things differently, but at the same time a policy should be generally enforced the same no matter where, because that’s the purpose of a policy.”

One regional child welfare office, like St. Louis, has implemented and strongly enforced a special program aimed at keeping families together. St. Louis has cut its number of children in state custody by 57 percent since 2005.

Yet other areas still haven’t even tried the St. Louis program, even as local child welfare leaders struggle to understand why so many kids are coming into foster care.

“I don’t know why they haven’t started (that program) statewide,” said Ross of the Midwest foster care group.

Lack of consistency across the state, county to county and even worker to worker, is a problem, said Kansas City attorney Jill Katz, who has worked cases in family court for years.

“The system is set up to provide a good structure, to make sure families can get better,” Katz said. “But not every case is given that same opportunity. The system is only as good as a caseworker on a certain case is and how many resources are put in.”

Missouri Sen. Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat who as an attorney often handles child welfare cases, has questioned state leaders about a lack of statewide training for workers. It’s evident, she said, that workers aren’t uniformly taught how their job should be done.

“I can be working with one worker on one day and get one result,” Justus said, “and then that same afternoon I work with another worker who has either not been through the same training or has been through the training with a different person and handles it completely different.”

It’s why she left court one day in October so upset.

She was representing a father of three children who had been living with their mother. One of the children, a 7-year-old girl, had been sexually assaulted by a friend of her mother’s. The girl and her two brothers were removed from the home.

The girl would need therapy. The children would need a home where they could heal.

But when Justus went into court, she learned the children hadn’t been helped. No therapy, no foster parents to watch over them. The little girl had attempted suicide.

“The kids were languishing in an emergency shelter,” Justus said. “There had been nothing done in three months of care.”

On the stand, the Children’s Division caseworker tried to explain it away, Justus said. He didn’t have time, he was waiting on his supervisor, he didn’t know how to properly fill out the forms to determine whether the children could live with a relative in Kansas.

“It was the most alarming thing I’d ever seen,” Justus said. “He admitted he’d done nothing in three months. I walked out of that courthouse in tears because I didn’t know what to do anymore.”

Decker, the new Children’s Division director, acknowledged that the division must do more to implement consistent practices and quality across the state.

“When we have those programs that are working very successfully, we need to expand and replicate them in other communities and do it in a way that has high fidelity, which means it’s implemented properly,” he said.

Justus plans to dedicate the next year — her last as a senator before term limits kick in — to improving child welfare any way she can. She has already received calls from workers in other parts of the state.

They report concerns similar to those she is seeing in Jackson County. One worker pleaded, “We need help.”

It was the same plea heard over and over a decade ago when one little boy’s death galvanized state leaders, advocates and families.

In Dominic’s name

The moment Sidney James walked into the Children’s Division office in downtown Springfield last year, he started to tremble.

He knew the place well. The lobby, the second-floor conference rooms where parents talk with caseworkers about the children they’re trying to get back. The fifth-floor area where they can play with their children under the watchful eye of a caseworker or parent aide.

In 2002, James was here himself. Not as an advocate, but as a father. Every week that his son Dominic was in foster care that summer, James and Dominic’s mom were there.

James would wrestle with his son and make him smile. By week three, he noticed bruises. He could tell that his son was detached and acting strangely. James complained more than once to the caseworker, but the child was left in the foster home.

Coming back so many years later was tough.

“I realized this is the last place I saw my son alive,” James said of that first day back at the Children’s Division in Greene County.

Now, as founder of the new Dominic James Justice for Children and Families, he goes there to see and advise parents who are fighting to get their children back.

James had left Springfield not long after Dominic died and spent years in St. Louis trying to heal. He hadn’t been back long when he ran into Finnell, the longtime advocate.

The two now work together to help other families. James wants a storefront someday. Maybe a temporary shelter.

“I was robbed,” James said. “Robbed of teaching my son how to be a gentleman. Of teaching my son how to take your hat off when you enter a building. I was robbed of having my son carry my father’s name.”

Now he fights in Dominic’s name.

On the wall in his small Springfield apartment hangs a quilt someone made for him shortly after Dominic died. He keeps it there as a reminder, much like the photos of Dominic he stores on his cellphone, and as a way to keep him focused on what he needs to do.

To help other parents get their children back home, safe and secure. And to continue pushing, just as he did in 2002, for Missouri’s child welfare system to improve.

“I tell myself that his death could be a positive situation as far as helping other children,” James said. “And I don’t want his death to go in vain.”

About this series

For more than a year, The Star has scrutinized Missouri’s care of abused and neglected children. Tragic cases in the Kansas City region demanded the probe. The newspaper first exposed how, for a time, state officials stopped releasing records after serious injuries and deaths. After a months-long battle, the newspaper received records in two cases that detailed critical missteps by the Missouri Department of Social Services’ Children’s Division.

The investigation also revealed that nearly 200 workers — many with decades of experience — had left the Jackson County office of the Children’s Division. Earlier this month, The Star obtained a report that showed a national accreditation team found many of the same serious problems. Until those issues in the county office are addressed or rectified, the state cannot be reaccredited. The state spent $20 million to receive accreditation in 2009.

A legislative committee is looking at ways to improve the system, and two Kansas City lawmakers say they are dedicated to making improvements.

Related stories from Kansas City Star