WHAT OTHERS SAY: Missouri is failing to protect at-risk children

Thursday, May 23, 2013 | 3:01 p.m. CDT

A mark of a state’s character is how well it protects its children.

By that measure, Missouri has much work to do.

Records reluctantly released by the state’s Department of Social Services reveal appalling miscalculations by child protection workers in Clay County that contributed to the death of a 4-year-old boy, Lucas Barnes Webb.

The emaciated child, who lived in Holt, was rushed to a hospital last October with multiple injuries, including bruises, evidence of past broken ribs and a fatal blow to his abdomen. His father and stepmother are charged in his death.

Unlike several other severe child abuse cases in the news recently, this wasn’t an instance of a child locked away from the world. Lucas had been the subject of multiple hotline calls, some by child care professionals. Despite the child’s bruises, withdrawn manner and underfed appearance, a caseworker deemed Lucas at low risk for harm in his father’s home.

Had a physical exam been sought on the day a child welfare investigator made an emergency inspection a month before Lucas died, doctors likely would have found several bruised and separated ribs.

A department spokesman said two employees involved in Lucas’ case no longer work for the agency. But the problems in Missouri’s Social Services apparatus extend far beyond the children’s division offices in Clay and Clinton counties.

In the past year, the Department of Social Services has regressed from an agency that routinely released records of serious child abuse cases to one of secrecy and obfuscation. Reporters from The Kansas City Star and Springfield News-Leader were stonewalled for months after requesting information about several cases. It took warnings from Republicans in the legislature to get Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration to release the records.

Nixon has attempted to remain detached from the records issue, referring questions to his staff or social services officials, who aren’t saying much. This is wrong. As the state’s executive, responsibility for protecting children ultimately falls to Nixon. He needs to step up and ensure the children’s division is the best it can be.

That should begin with a review of resources and training for frontline workers. Child advocates are deeply concerned about turnover among caseworkers, said Debby Howland, chairwoman of the Kansas City Child Abuse Roundtable Coalition. If money is the problem, Nixon and the legislature must make sure the division is properly funded.

Nixon has his work cut out, as two respected social services officials have departed his administration in the past week.

Alan Freeman, director of the Department of Social Services, resigned Monday after just six months on the job. Ian McCaslin, the long-time director of the Medicaid program, also left. Clearly, a department charged with protecting the state’s most vulnerable citizens needs stability at the top.

Protecting at-risk children has to be a state’s top priority. It must be done transparently. Darkness and secrecy are exactly the conditions that allow child abuse to thrive.

Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.

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