Following the release of a federal study on Missouri's missing foster care children, the Department of Social Services leadership said change is in the works.
In an emotional, and sometimes combative, hearing Tuesday morning, the Missouri House Committee on Children and Families questioned Missouri Department of Social Services leaders and took testimony from the public.
The hearing was focused on the "Missouri's Efforts to Protect Children Missing from Foster Care" case study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General that was released Sept. 28.
A task force, made up of local law enforcement agencies, the Inspector General's Office and the U.S. Department of Justice, used the state's list of 94 missing foster care children from July 31, 2019, to locate missing children and determine DSS didn't follow federal and state laws, policies and procedures before and during the time the children went missing.
In Missouri, the DSS Children's Division is responsible for administering child welfare services, like foster care.
DSS Director Jennifer Tidball and Children's Division Director Joanie Rogers said the state lacks documentation certifying required procedures took place and has already begun implementing some changes that would address issues identified in the report. Still, Tidball and Rogers said, more work needs to be done.
Of the 94 reportedly missing foster care children, the task force focused on the 65 children that were located and returned to foster care or removed from Children's Division custody through court order. That number was shaved down further to 59 to exclude the children who didn't have documented instances of being missing in their case files.
Those 59 cases were reviewed to determine care before the children went missing and efforts to locate them. Of those cases, 18 were released from foster care custody and 41 were returned to foster care.
Tidball said roughly 50 percent of missing children are 17 years old and runaway until they age out of the system.
The study found the state doesn't have policies in place to identify children who are more likely to runaway or go missing, lacks interventions to reduce their flight risk and doesn't accurately identify children who are missing.
The study also found the Children's Division frequently couldn't provide evidence it took required actions to locate missing children and in some cases lacked evidence to show required health and safety checks were completed.
Tidball said those actions may have still occurred, but a departmental policy change in 2016 no longer required case managers and frontline staff to complete associated documentation.
"The stop-doing list Jennifer had referred to, it wasn't saying not to do it, it was saying the expectation to document it in our case of record was optional," Rogers said.
The stop-doing list is the policy document created in 2016 that made certain documentation practices optional for case managers.
Rogers said the department has re-implemented some of the requirements, but the culture within the department isn't immediately changing.
"I really just think it's important for this committee to get the mindset of what we're working on right now and what the mindset is of team members," Tidball said. "It's a little bit disheartening to me when I hear from Joanie on a supervisor call last week they asked for another stop-doing list. And the answer is no. Let's talk about all the things that we need to start doing that we aren't documenting."
Committee Chairwoman and state Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, said she was shocked by the scope of the report and disappointed in the department.
"What I heard was a department that has left the hearing early, who didn't have answers to the questions we were asking, and I'm really disappointed in what I'm seeing in Jefferson City," Coleman said. "I do not know enough to know what's happening on the frontline, except that we're seeing these children hurting, and there are people sitting on this dais who are furious."
The report also took issue with some of the state's processes for identifying and locating missing children and providing care once found.
The state, according to the OIG report, has only one preventative measure intended to reduce children's risk of going missing from foster care, which is to require visitation plans for all children in foster care.
Upon discovery a child is missing from a foster care agency, the Children's Division policy and federal law require the child's case manager to file a missing child report to local law enforcement within 24 hours. Case managers are also to file a report with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Tidball said case managers in some areas have stopped reporting to local law enforcement because the reports aren't accepted by the police department for 17-year-old children or if the report is not filed by the child's foster placement.
In those instances, she said, case managers work with Missouri State Highway Patrol to file a report.
In addition to notifying law enforcement, Missouri's policy states the case manager should contact the case juvenile officer, court representative, child's parents and family, friends, counselors, school faculty and anyone else who might have information about the child's location.
If the child isn't found, the policy states case managers should continue making contact once per month until the child is located. Case managers are required to record all contacts and attempted contacts in the case file.
Rogers said that activity is still happening, but it may not be recorded through documentation.
If the child is located and returned to foster care, the case manager is required to assess the child's safety and arrange a medical examination within 24 hours.
The case manager is also required to schedule a meeting with the Family Support Team within 72 hours to assess concerns regarding the child's safety, foster care placement, and how to prevent future runaways.
Federal and state policy requires the case manager to interview the child to determine what led to the child's absence and what they experienced while missing.
Rogers said the Children's Division has been reintroducing documentation requirements in steps as it works to implement a different work culture.
"It's kind of indicative of this department and if it was a problem, you should have just fixed it," said state Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka. "If you weren't complying with federal and state laws, it should have been fixed instead of bringing it up in 2021. It just looks poor."
Rogers said some of the department's next steps include restructuring job classes and divisions, additional training and technology upgrades to reduce the workload of case managers.
Tidball said the state's runaway list, which is reported to DSS every night, was 95 names long Monday.
While some circuits are fully staffed, Rogers said others are struggling to fill open positions and are relying on case aids to do more time-consuming work.
Kelly Schultz, director of the Office of Child Advocate, said the department's issues are nothing new, but the department may benefit from a slower rollout of new policies for frontline staff.
Schultz's office is contacted when someone makes a complaint in the way Children's Division handles a case.
While steps have been made to improve since the study was conducted, Schultz said, she still sees concerns about documentation, timelines for reporting missing children and lack of screening assessment to determine if the child has been trafficked.