Child welfare delays put Missouri cases in peril

Friday, November 29, 2013 | 11:43 a.m. CST; updated 1:56 p.m. CST, Friday, November 29, 2013

KANSAS CITY — Hundreds of pending child welfare investigations in Missouri that weren't concluded within the deadlines set by law are at risk of being thrown out.

The issue has arisen because two women, one from West Plains and another from Kansas City, sued to clear their names when their cases weren't completed fast enough. Missouri law requires child welfare workers to complete abuse and neglect investigations within 30 days after the initial hotline call unless "good cause" exists for a delay. The law also requires that those accused be notified of the conclusion within 90 days of the hotline call, The Kansas City Star reports.

Lower courts sided with the women, and the state appealed. Now, the Missouri Supreme Court is preparing to hear arguments in the cases.

Depending on the outcome, some people's names could be wiped from the state's child abuse and neglect registry and others' names may never go on even though claims against them have been substantiated. Worse, say advocates who are pushing for a change in state law, some children could be left in homes that are unsafe, The Star reported.

"It is a scary time," said Carolyn Green, executive director of Child Safe of Central Missouri Inc., an advocacy center in Sedalia.

After a lower court ruling in the West Plain woman's cases in May, the Department of Social Services distributed a summary of the case to Children's Division offices and noted that the decision could have consequences for future cases.

"It will eliminate the Children's Division flexibility to delay its investigation and delay concluding its investigation at the request of law enforcement beyond the statutory time frames," wrote Mark Gutchen, legal counsel for the department.

With the litigation pending, child welfare offices across the state have been cracking down on overdue investigations. In some cases, workers said they've been reprimanded and even let go because they had too many cases that weren't completed on time. In July, as state leaders worried about the ramifications of recent court rulings, investigators across the state were ordered to stop working on cases more than 90 days old.

Advocates and those in child welfare across the state are eager for a legislative fix, saying children will pay if the current deadlines stay in place.

"It can take a viable child abuse allegation and because of a technicality in the law, a ruling can be made that will literally keep the child in danger," said Barbara Brown-Johnson, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center in Springfield. "We're looking at what's fair for big people rather than what's good, safe and healthy for a child. That offends me."

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