WHAT OTHERS SAY: Missouri neglecting children

Thursday, July 5, 2012 | 3:48 p.m. CDT; updated 8:02 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 5, 2012

If the state of Missouri were a parent, it might be rightly charged with neglect.

In what has become an all-too-familiar story, we learn once again how the state is failing in its duty to properly and quickly investigate child abuse and neglect reports.

Last Sunday, Springfield News-Leader reporter Kathryn Wall presented the latest evidence in a story explaining that investigators in Greene County missed state-mandated deadlines nearly two-thirds of the time. The county office received 3,992 reports of abuse and neglect in 2011 — and was able to complete investigations into 1,462 of them within the required 30 days.

The numbers are all the more disappointing because this issue has been well known and well documented for more than a decade, dating at least to a 2000 state audit report.

The main difference is things have gotten worse.

In a snapshot look at February 2000, Greene County showed 32 percent of its cases were overdue. At the time, that was the worst of any area examined. By last year, the shameful record was up to 63 percent missing deadlines — with all indications that the pace of failure is continuing this year.

Meanwhile, officials with the state Children’s Division and Department of Social Services won’t even give us the courtesy of a reply or an explanation to our inquiries.

Sure, even child advocates say there are good reasons why some investigations cannot be completed within the 30 days required by the law. Sometimes, law enforcement is involved, and those investigators do not face similar deadlines. In other cases, it might be a missing medical report, or even the disclosure of important new information that might force an extension.

But everyone knows the real reasons for delays — it has been pointed out repeatedly in audits and state task force reports:

The state will hide behind the fact that it meets accreditation standards. But as critics have pointed out, accreditation basically means the state’s policies are in order. It doesn’t mean the department is adequately staffed, as it allows for exceptions because of “temporary” vacancies.

We applaud Springfield Sen. Bob Dixon, a Republican, for being willing to delve into these issues and for recognizing the critical morale issues. “The employees need to know they are valued,” Dixon said.

Going beyond our look at Greene County, Dixon has asked for statewide data on hotline calls and on the number of investigations that are completed within the statutory deadlines. He wants an analysis of the reasons for delays and a better understanding of the quality-control measurements used by the department. Finally, he is promising a tour to visit directly with front-line workers, to learn more about what is causing delays and morale issues.

The Department of Social Services, like most state agencies, has had a reduction in staffing because of state budget shortfalls. In its fiscal year 2013 budget request, it proposed maintaining staffing in the Children’s Division field staff at the same levels as budgeted for fiscal year 2012.

When Gov. Jay Nixon submitted his budget recommendations this year, he generally accepted the department’s staffing recommendation — but singled out one area of the division for a cut.

You guessed it: children’s service workers.

Taking advantage of the fact that some of these critical positions were vacant, the governor proposed 28 fewer full-time employees — a 2 percent reduction in authorized positions in a department with already overworked staff.

The General Assembly went along with the governor’s cut in children’s service workers at a time when child abuse and neglect calls continue to rise.

Does this sound like a neglectful parent to you?

Copyright Springfield News-Leader. Reprinted with permission.

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