JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri officials who handle child abuse and foster care cases have received national accreditation after a five-year, $20 million effort begun after the death of a 2-year-old boy in Springfield.
Ron Levy, director of Missouri's Department of Social Services , when announcing the accreditation at a ceremony Thursday, said that "what seemed like almost an insurmountable goal just five years ago has become a reality." Missouri is one of six states to gain accreditation from the New York-based Council on Accreditation for its entire children's agency.
Missouri first lady Georganne Nixon and several state officials congratulated the department's Division of Children employees who filled an office building ballroom near the state Capitol. Sister Ann Conrad, chairwoman of the Council on Accreditation, said Missouri has become a national model for seeking statewide accreditation.
Paula Neese, director of the Division of Children, said the designation was a first step toward improving the situation for children and their families. She said the accreditation shows Missouri is trying to do the best job possible.
"When you're going to have surgery and go into the hospital, do you want to go to one that's accredited and has met national standards, or do you care?" Neese said. "When you send your child or your grandchild to school, do you want to know that you're sending them to a school that met accreditation standards or is it not important?"
Unmentioned during the ceremony was the 2002 death of Dominic James three months after state caseworkers removed him from his parents' home. The boy's foster parent was sentenced to 15 years in prison for assault and abuse that resulted in the child's death.
The boy's biological father, Sidney James, and court advocates had warned state officials of bruises found on Dominic. There also were several emergency room visits for unexplained seizures. A later investigation cast doubt on whether Dominic should have been taken from his parents.
The case led to the reorganization of the Division of Children and several resignations.
In 2004, the legislature approved a bill expanding background check requirements for foster families, increasing the legal hurdle for removing children from their parents and requiring judges to hold a hearing within three working days after a child is removed from a home. The 2004 law also directed the Division of Children to gain national accreditation within five years.
The accreditation review focused on the division offices in 45 court circuits and its Jefferson City headquarters.
One child advocacy group questioned the significance of accreditation. Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the accreditation process focuses too much on paperwork and file cabinets and ignores how cases are resolved for children and families.