SIKESTON - Spend any time working to provide for the safety and welfare of children and you will come face-to-face with family environments ranging from television-show perfect to your worst nightmare and beyond.
"Child abuse doesn't have race, ethnicity or class," said Gary Helle, circuit manager for the 33rd Circuit Court Children's Division.
Since 1983, April is observed as Child Abuse Prevention Month, a time set aside with the idea that the best way to prevent child abuse is by increasing awareness in the community of both the problem and resources to address the problem.
"Most people don't know anything about what we do," Helle said of his division. "We take child welfare very seriously. Every child is entitled to a permanent, stable home." On the other hand, "we realize how intrusive we are," he added. "We, too, are people of the community."
It is no wonder misconceptions abound as child welfare agencies, laws and policies vary from state to state.
"We can't just go and pick them up like on TV," Helle said. "In Missouri the agency that takes custody is not the same agency that receives custody."
He explained to physically remove a child from a home in Missouri, an emergency authorization for protective custody form must be filled out by a doctor or police officer, which is good for 12 hours, or by a juvenile officer, which has a 24-hour duration.
A juvenile officer can also fill out the form for a 12-hour extension on the 12-hours from a doctor or police officer's form.
While many people may think juvenile officers spend all their time tracking down truants, they work very closely with the Children's Division, with two full-time officers assigned to address nothing but Children's Division issues in the circuit. "They're committed to the families, committed to the kids," said Bill Lawson, chief juvenile officer for the 33rd Circuit.
When emergency protective custody is executed, the Children's Division is contacted and are the ones that send someone to actually take physical custody. "We're the ones with the car seats," Helle said.
Working closely with Children's Division officials, it is the juvenile officer that allows the protective custody order to expire or petitions the court for longer protective custody periods based on the Children's Division recommendations.
Every reasonable effort is made to reunite families, Helle said, but alternate plans such as placing the child with a relative or adoptive parents are all developed at the same time to ensure a timely resolution.
"Our goal is to provide a permanent solution within a year," said Lawson. "We don't let kids grow up in foster care."
The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 mandates that within one year of a child entering foster care, the case must be resolved by returning the child home or terminating parental rights so a new permanent family can be arranged.
While some circuits can take up to two months to get a case heard by a judge, the 33rd Circuit takes pride in its quick resolutions, typically reaching adjudication in just two weeks.
As part of the process, a "family support team" is formed to determine a permanent solution. It is made up of the family and their attorney, the children if age appropriate, the Children's Division case worker and supervisor, a deputy juvenile officer, any relevant service providers and the "guardian ad litem," an attorney who represents the child when they enter the foster care system.
The team usually meets at the Children's Division offices, but in some cases must be held at courthouses or even jails if the parent or parents are incarcerated.
The goal is to come up with a comprehensive "case plan" which considers "any relevant issue," Helle said, "looking not only at the incident which opened the case but any systemic issues which impact healthy family functioning."
Helle said his investigators rarely encounter vicious or angry, out-of-control parents. Many simply involve parents who aren't able to take care of themselves having problems taking care of their children.
"Today's families are facing a lot of stress," he said. Blended families are increasingly common, and other complicating factors like drugs or mental health issues are often involved. "We just don't get many cases in which people just lose their temper and beat their kids," Helle said.
Changes that have gone in over the years are probably at least in part responsible for some misconceptions about the Children's Division.
Here in Missouri, for example, people still call the agency "DFS."
As of Aug. 28, the Division of Family Services no longer exists, having been split into the Family Support Division and Children's Division. Both of the new divisions remain part of the Department of Social Services.
While DFS offices operate county-by-county, Children's Division offices are now assigned to circuits "because so much of what we do occurs in the court," Helle explained.
"A lot of things tend to get lumped together as 'welfare,'" said Lawson. "I think it was a good move. It certainly cleared up lines of authority and working relationships."
Those who suspect child neglect or abuse are encouraged to call the toll-free Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-392-3738.
Helle said it is important to remember, however, that if you see a child in need of immediate help, call 911 or your local police department first and then call the hotline once help is on the way.