Missouri children's agency earns national accreditation

Thursday, January 14, 2010 | 6:02 p.m. CST

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.

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Richard Wexler January 15, 2010 | 10:32 a.m.

I appreciate AP (and the Post-Dispatch) including our perspective in their stories. Let me explain why child welfare agency accreditation means so much less than it does in other fields:

Anybody who wants to know what “accreditation” really means - absolutely nothing - should read the three-part series that ran last month in the Louisville Courier-Journal. There are some serious flaws in the reporting, but one can still get a good sense of what really goes on in the fully-accredited system in Kentucky:

The Missouri system really has improved in recent years, particularly in St. Louis. But the $270,000 that Missouri wasted on this phony seal of approval could have provided Intensive Family Preservation Services interventions to keep together 54 families the Children’s Division otherwise might have torn apart. It could have provided $600 a month rent subsidies for a year for 37 families, so their children weren’t thrown into foster care because of poor housing conditions. Or it could have provided ten families with in-patient drug treatment in programs where parents could stay with their young children.

Instead, the money went to a process that amounts to accrediting file cabinets. The guidelines from the Council on Accreditation specify that there are no *unannounced* visits to children and families – so they never talk to them under circumstances where they could get honest answers. (And even the announced visits only started after the Dayton Daily News exposed the lack of them in 1999). And they’re not really looking for honest answers since the Council on Accreditation was invented by the national trade association for child welfare agencies themselves, the Child Welfare League of America. Details are in the report NCCPR did on Missouri child welfare, available from the State and Local Reports page at – though I would emphasize again that the Missouri system as a whole has improved since that report was published.

Richard Wexler
Executive Director
National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

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