JEFFERSON CITY -- Lack of open communication, inconsistency, overlapping responsibilities and a shortage of social service workers are a few of the problems a Missouri Senate interim committee has identified during their investigation of the state's foster care services over the past few months.
Last August, 2-year-old Dominic James was allegedly killed by his foster parents with his death being attributed to Shaken Baby Syndrome. After his death, Gov. Bob Holden ordered an investigation of the Greene County Foster Care System. Based on those findings, Holden requested a committee called the Missouri Senate Interim Committee to Improve Children's Protective Services and Foster Care to investigate the state's foster care system and the restructuring of the Division of Family Services.
"We didn't hear one testimony from foster parents across the state worried about the amount of pay they receive each month for their foster child," said Sen. Bill Foster, who is chairman of the committee. "All they were concerned about was looking out for the best interest of the child."
Last week Foster met with over 50 area foster parents and representatives from the Stoddard County Foster Parents Association, the Division of Family Services, the Stoddard and Dunklin County Juvenile Office and others to discuss issues regarding the restructuring of the foster care system.
Although the meeting took place in Dexter, foster parents from New Madrid, Scott, Butler and Mississippi counties were present at the meeting.
"Sen. Foster made it clear a lot of policy and procedure changes, not legislation changes, are needed," said Kathie Miller, executive director of the Center for Family Resources, who spoke at the local meeting. "People need to remember that there was no legislation for social services until 1980 so it's still young. Social services is still growing and learning."
The reality is that this area has scarce resources to begin with, said Miller, whose service area includes Scott, New Madrid, Mississippi and Stoddard counties. Agencies are fitting foster children with families that are available rather than providing the children with families that suit their needs, she said.
A social service worker shortage and limited state funding is one of the problems facing the foster care system.
"Missouri is ranked 45th in the nation in the amount of pay social workers receive," said Leasa M. Stone, Stoddard County Foster Parents Association secretary and foster parent. "Social workers only receive a four percent raise from social worker to supervisor, and there is no pay raise for a social worker going from a bachelor's degree to a master's degree." A vast majority of social service workers hold degrees in education or history and not necessarily with social service delivery, Miller noted.
"One of the things Gov. Holden did to alleviate the shortage -- and I'm not sure if it helped -- was split up and create specialists within an area. That was done to cover multiple counties, but then again, you have one specialized person covering four counties so I'm not exactly sure how that's working out," Foster said.
Miller said the turnover rate with social service workers is so high that there are frequent changes in social workers assigned to children which can attribute to a lack of communication.
"The state needs to coordinate how it keeps communication open between juvenile offices, the Division of Family Services and the community, which is something Sen. Foster addressed," Miller said.
Foster parents don't always receive a complete medical/mental history of the children they provide homes for either. "One foster parent at the meeting said she had a foster child who was suicidal, and she didn't even know it," Stone said. "The child needed to be in home suited for her condition instead of a traditional foster home."
There are some cases where a child may be placed with a foster family that lives in a different county than the biological parents, Miller noted. During this process, it's possible for information to get left out or it's just difficult to distribute the information, she said.
Other issues found by the Senate interim committee are adoption terminations that are too lengthy, inconsistency of social services from county to county, said Foster. He also said a lot of parents complained that taking children out of homes based on hotline calls was too quick of a process for such a big decision.
Possible solutions discussed by the committee include cross-training by the DFS and juvenile offices and moving cases to private entities.
Foster said Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr., chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, has helped create a new commission composed of six judges. Two judges are from the Senate, two from the House of Representatives and two from the executive branch, A draft report of what the Senate interim committee has found during their investigation will be discussed in a meeting Thursday, and the final report will be presented Monday in Jefferson City so the new commission can begin work.
"There's definitely hope for the foster care system," Miller said. "It's not a broken system. We've laid a wonderful ground. Bringing people together to talk and to have state backing is a great start for a road to recovery."