Four months after Gov. Jay Nixon said Missouri’s child welfare system needed millions in additional funding, lawmakers can’t decide on a number.
Or even if the beleaguered system — wrought with pockets of overwhelming caseloads and high turnover at a time it’s attempting to gain statewide re-accreditation — needs much of an increase at all.
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At least one Republican lawmaker questioned whether the system is truly understaffed and in need or just “in crisis.”
That has some child advocates, in this last week before the budget becomes final, worried the state’s youngest and most vulnerable could come out on the losing end of a money fight in Jefferson City.
“We need this proposal to go through for re-accreditation and, most importantly, to solve the problems we know are happening,” said Emily van Schenkhof of Missouri KidsFirst.
Nixon’s proposal for $6 million in additional funds would help recruit, train and retain employees; hire investigators; upgrade computer systems; and provide pay increases for more than 850 workers.
“These are laser-focused strategies,” said Children’s Division director Tim Decker, who took over the post in late November. “They are specifically targeted on challenges the agency is facing.”
But Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican, said he hasn’t seen evidence to suggest a funding bump would have much impact on the problems facing the Children’s Division.
“That may or may not work. I don’t know,” said Schaefer, who is also chairman of the Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, which was created to identify problems with the state child welfare system and work to improve them. “I don’t think it’s something that’s been vetted thoroughly enough.”
While debating the Children’s Division budget last week, Schaefer asked, “Do we really need all those folks?”
“Who’s done the analysis on whether or not we need this many folks as opposed to keeping the folks who have led us to where we are today?” he said.
In stories last year, The Star detailed how the Jackson County Children’s Division went from a model for the rest of the state several years ago to a troubled system fled by dozens of veteran workers and investigators.
Caseloads skyrocketed to two or three times the national standard. Inexperienced workers showed up at court unprepared. In some cases, that extended a child’s stay in state care. Other regional offices in the state reported similar experiences with turnover and high caseloads.
Many feared the system was faltering, despite a massive overhaul a decade ago after a young boy died in a southwest Missouri foster home.
Last month, the House budget committee approved just shy of Nixon’s $6 million in additional money. But the Senate wiped the majority of additional funds from its appropriation bill last week. That budget allows resources for more training, though senators have said they probably would also provide money for iPads to help caseworkers in the field.
The additional funds may be reinstated during the budget conference committee this week.
“Money doesn’t solve all the problems, but money is part of the problem,” said Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, a Democrat from Kansas City. “When we’re looking at turnover, we need better ways to recruit and retain our employees. To not acknowledge that (doing so) takes money is short-sighted.”
According to agency statistics, employee turnover in the Children’s Division rose to 24 percent in 2013. Jackson County’s was nearly twice that at 46 percent.
A decade ago legislators demanded the Children’s Division earn accreditation. In 2009, the agency received that stamp from the Council on Accreditation. The honor has standards that the agency must meet regarding workers and caseloads.
Jackson County alone has received two memos from the accreditation agency since the fall stating that the office has not yet proved it has met all standards. Most questions revolve around turnover, high caseloads and education of workers. Two other regional offices also have been given three-month deferrals by accreditors, and two more are making initial corrections.
Both Nixon and the House support a career ladder for workers that ratchets up pay with experience.
That is not in the Senate budget.
Schaefer said low pay and high turnover are a problem with all state departments, not just the Children’s Division. That’s why, he said, the budget already includes a 1 percent pay bump for every state employee, including those in the Children’s Division.
“I’ll be the first to admit that Missouri is near the low end of the spectrum in regard to state employee wages,” he said. “That’s a systemic issue that we’re dealing with. To specifically single out the Children’s Division and say, ‘They’re already going to get a pay increase, but we have to give them more of a pay increase and that’ll solve all their problems.’ I haven’t seen anything but anecdotal evidence that that’s the case.”
Crafting a budget, Schaefer said, means making difficult choices with the state’s limited resources.
“The money has to come from somewhere,” he said. “We have to look at a lot of factors.”
Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat who formerly worked as a lobbyist for children’s issues, said he understands money is scarce. But he argued the Children’s Division has pressing needs.
Schaefer “is looking at this from the 30,000-foot level,” he said. “I’ve sat in a room with a foster kid who had over the course of a year and a half had nine Children’s Division workers. I’m looking at this issue from the ground level, so I know how that funding will impact the lives of kids.”
Rep. Bill Lant, who is vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect, has spent time in the past year speaking with child welfare workers. He’s met some who have been at the department 15 years and make the same wage as someone there just 15 months.
“No one wants to stay at the same pay grade for that long, especially in a field that is so demanding,” said Lant, a Republican from Pineville. “We, as a legislature and as a state, we have to take a look at the people who are hands-on and on the front line.”