Missouri child welfare agency pitches plan to ‘rebuild’ overburdened foster care system

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(Missouri Independent) – The director of Missouri’s child welfare agency told lawmakers this week that the state has “effectively legally orphanized” around 1,500 children.

Those children have had their legal ties to their biological parents severed — by a court, in what’s called termination of parental rights — but the social services agency had no adoptive parents ready to take their place. 

They wait, in foster care, to be adopted or age out of the system.

“If you know anybody who wants to adopt a child, an older child who’s got that situation, let us know, because those kids need to be moved on,”  Darrell Missey, director of Children’s Division,  told lawmakers at a House budget subcommittee hearing for the Department of Social Services.

Those “orphanized” children, in limbo, are part of the broader issue Missey laid out for lawmakers: Too many kids enter foster care, and once entangled in the system, they linger. 

There are over 13,300 kids in foster care in Missouri — which includes placement settings such as temporary care with relatives, traditional foster families with strangers and group residential homes.

Only around 45% of foster children returned home safely to their parents within 12 months in 2021, the most recently available data — far below the federal benchmark of 75%.

The state removes children at a rate nearly twice the national average, even when accounting for poverty, according to the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

The reason, Missey said, is twofold. 

At the front end, Missouri does too little to prevent kids from entering foster care in the first place, he said, and at the back end, there are too few resources to move foster kids to stable, permanent homes.

Often, when kids come into care, Missey said, it’s a result of “poverty, mental illness, and addiction.

“If you put services on the front end to prevent those things from getting to a place where a child had to be removed, that’s a much better expenditure of money,” he said, adding that each child in foster care costs the state around $25,000 per year.

“It more than pays for itself over time,” Missey said, of prevention efforts.

Social services leadership pitched lawmakers on a new philosophy to “rebuild and reform” Children’s Division, as part of the overall agency’s budget proposal for next year which features funding 100 new Children’s Division staff as “phase one.”

State Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, who sits on the committee which heard the social services budget, said in an interview with The Independent the preventative services outlined in the budget are “definitely a step forward, but I think a lot more needs to be done.”

In the hearing, she pointed to the limited funding for a crisis program, which is designed to provide temporary child care relief for parents facing crisis, to avoid their children being taken into foster care. 

DSS leadership said the issue is that the providers for that program are limited, so they didn’t request a funding increase. 

“[Missey is] asking for what he is hoping he can get right now,” Unsicker said in an interview. 

Unsicker also pointed to a need to bolster Missouri’s social safety net more broadly. Because poverty is often conflated with child neglect, ensuring adequate housing assistance is available, for instance, could prevent children from being taken out of their homes for their poor living conditions, Unsicker said — although that wouldn’t be in DSS’s direct purview.

Missey said he hopes this is the beginning of a shift in the department’s priorities for years to come.

“I’ve had people already ask me, ‘Do they think this is enough?’” Missey said, “And as I’ve explained to people, this is just the first step.”

He added, “I think it’s going to lead to great practice once we can get there.” 

‘Phase one’


Robert Knodell, acting director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, addresses a group of state employees on May 24, 2021 (photo: Missouri Governor’s Office). 

One challenge of having so many kids in state care is that it requires a lot of staff to manage them, which Missouri’s Children’s Division does not have, causing unmanageable caseloads, low morale, and high turnover rates and vacancies. 

As “just phase one” of the plan to reform the department, Missey said, the department hopes to hire 100 more staff, using part of the $22 million Gov. Mike Parson recommended be allocated to the division in his budget proposal last week for “Children’s Division Reconstruction and Reform.”

Missey said that phase is “completely dependent” on the legislature enacting the governor’s recommendation to increase state workers’ pay across-the-board by 8.7%, so they can fill those positions and retain existing staff.

The starting salary for an entry-level Children’s Division worker now, with a cost-of-living boost from the governor last year, plus a 10% boost Children’s Division allocated to caseworkers from their vacancy-related savings, is $39,390.96.

With the 8.7% raises, Missey said, Missouri will “approach” the average salaries of the surrounding states’ child welfare workers, but not meet it.

“Approaching it is far better than we are now, which is nowhere near it.”

Missey said the real number of new employees they need is much higher: they have around 1,800 workers in the agency but by some estimates, need closer to 3,400, primarily to handle the large foster care caseload. To be on par with neighboring Arkansas, Missey said, they would need 1,000 more workers than they currently have.

“I’m not asking for 1,000 people,” Missey said. 

Missey said for the additional 100 staff, the general idea would be to use them in one of two ways: to “increase efficiencies for everybody with regard to the work they do now” — meaning to lower existing caseloads — “and the other is to further the work we do toward prevention,” he added.

The new workers would be utilized “in a way designed to bring the number of kids in care down,” Missey said, although he also said the department is still working “to piece that together” and not “count our chickens before they’ve hatched.” 

The state has shrunk most of its prevention-oriented workforce, called Family Centered Service workers. Those staff are called in when the state has concerns that don’t rise to the level of removing the child — but most have been moved away from that work, to cover child abuse and neglect investigations and foster care case management because of staffing issues, Missey said at the hearing. The number of open Family Centered Service cases has dropped over the last five years, according to DSS’s annual reports. 

Longer-term, reducing the number of kids in care could allow more staff to be moved to prevention work, Missey said.

Parson cut 96 jobs from Children’s Division in 2020, citing COVID-related declining revenue, though they were mostly supervisors and mid-level management rather than frontline workers. 

The same month, former director Jennifer Tidball turned down a Senate committee’s offer to help staff more positions

During the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Tuesday, Chairman Lincoln Hough, R-Springfield, noted that the governor is asking for 100 new employees in the Children’s Division even though the division turned down 50 that year.

“What has changed from when we tried to add 50 positions and were told they were not needed?” Hough asked.

Budget Director Dan Haug answered: “We have new leadership over there that has taken a fresh look at it.”

Robert Knodell took over as acting Department of Social Services director in October 2021. Soon after, Missey stepped down as a circuit judge in Jefferson County to become head of the Children’s Division.

Missey said eventually, he may try to target the new prevention-oriented staff to the geographic areas with the highest rates of foster children in care.

“Should we target those people there and do it all at once? If we did it all at once, this would be much bigger,” Missey said, adding that if the legislators decide Children’s Division needs more workers faster, “we would take them.”

With the governor’s recommendations, Knodell said, he believes that “will make our child service worker salaries more competitive.”

“But ultimately the solution to our problem is really more prevention,” Knodell later continued, “and fewer children having to come into care.” 

Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, has disagreed with Missey’s emphasis on hiring more workers, arguing instead that the best preventative services would include providing emergency help directly to families. 

By email, Wexler said he believes Missey’s new plans continue to be misguided. 

“All those new hires will only wind up widening the net of needless intervention into families,” Wexler said, “and you’ll get the same lousy system only bigger.”

Instead of spending money to hire 100 more people, Wexler said the funds should be directed into “emergency concrete help for families: Child care aid, rent subsidies, one-time emergency cash.”

And those funds, he argued, should be administered by community-based, community-run organizations.

“That would significantly reduce cases in which poverty is confused with neglect,” Wexler said.

“Instead of increasing the supply of caseworkers, reduce the demand for caseworkers by directly helping families.”

‘Return on investment’


Missouri Gov. Mike Parson delivered his annual State of the State Address on Jan. 18, 2023, where he recommended $22 million in funding for Children’s Division Reconstruction and Reform (Tim Bommel/Missouri House Communications). 

The budget would provide a slight boost to existing contracted preventative services, through a rate increase for third-party providers — but Missey indicated more significant prevention efforts would come down the line, once the bare minimum workforce needs were met and more Children’s Division staff could be shifted to prevention work.

The governor recommended rate increases of 13% for contracted providers, DSS officials explained, which would include a handful of contractors who provide preventative services now.

Children’s treatment services include contractors who provide mental health assessments, parent aide and education services, and the home-based crisis intervention program to keep families together called intensive in-home services. 

Intensive in-home services, which consist of weeks-long intensive support for qualifying families when a child is at immediate risk of being removed, often including help connecting the family with community resources, generally have fewer openings than demand and served around 1,500 families in 2021. 

In 2021, the latest state data, 19 children were not accepted to intensive in-home services due to a lack of openings and were then placed in state custody. 

Chief Financial Officer of DSS Patrick Luebbering said the children’s treatment services providers have not received a rate increase since 2007 and many of the services “are prevention — this is where we want to put more bang for the buck, to keep kids out of care.”

With the governor’s proposed rate increase, the budgeted amount for children’s treatment services would increase from $22.9 million to $25.5 million, though the budget did not break down the spending for intensive in-home services specifically.

Another preventative program, called crisis care, is composed of short-term emergency placement so that, Missey said, “where the parents can’t take care of the child, that child doesn’t necessarily have to come into foster care.”

Unsicker questioned whether the roughly $2 million allocated to crisis care in the budget is sufficient.

“You’re putting so much emphasis on prevention, and putting more money into prevention,” Unsicker said at this week’s budget hearing, “and I’m just looking at this and it’s $2 million, which is not a whole lot in the scope of our budget.”

Missey said that it’s also a question of whether current providers “are available to use that money,” and said they should have conversations with places like the crisis nursery center in St. Louis to ask whether they can expand.

Luebbering added that the crisis services are limited and specific services and they haven’t been fully expended them the last few years, and that “if we were thinking we were needing more money here, we probably would’ve requested.” 

“We’re trying to look at what other prevention-type services out there that we need to build up,” Luebbering said, through Family First.

The Family First Prevention Services Act, enacted by Congress in 2018, set out to provide federal funds focused on prevention resources, and to reduce the use of congregate homes for foster youth, also called residential treatment facilities. 

The state has been appropriated the same roughly $10 million to spend to develop new programs for Family First every year since fiscal year 2020. They have, as of last fiscal year, spent just under $300,000 of that now $10.8 million. Missey and Luebbering said they hope to spend more this year. 

Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, who is on the subcommittee that heard this budget this week, said at the hearing she agreed with the shift toward prevention.

Lavender questioned whether the money the state pays for foster care could be better spent given to the family itself, to avoid neglect claims rooted in poverty.

“So you take my kid, you put him in foster care, you pay the foster parents money. What if I needed that and if I had that money, then my kid would no longer be neglected and you would have never taken them?” Lavender asked.

Missey said it’s a question he often had when he served as a judge. 

“The definition of neglect is so broad you could drive a truck through it,” Missey said. “And so it’s philosophically exactly the right question to ask, particularly as we move forward to shift the nature of this.” 

In an interview, Lavender said the 13% increase for contractors plus 100 new workers is a “good place to start,” and that she was encouraged by the direction of the department under Director Missey, and understood the department may not be able to use a massive increase in preventative funding abruptly, without this transition. 

Rep. Michael O’Donnell, R-Oakville, said at the hearing that he appreciated the discussion of “return on investment,” meaning what the state spends on foster care now versus what it could spend investing in prevention. 

“I love the fact that you guys actually have a vision that says we’re going to reduce the number of kids in foster care,” O’Donnell said. “It’s going to have a fiscal impact on the entire state budget.”

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Clara Bates


Clara Bates covers social services and poverty for The Missouri Independent. She previously worked for the Nevada Current, where she reported on labor violations in casinos, hurdles facing applicants for unemployment benefits, and lax oversight of the funeral industry. She also wrote about vocational education for Democracy Journal. Bates is a graduate of Harvard College.