Chief justice offers practical approaches

Saturday, February 1, 2003

In the midst of Missouri's foster care woes and concerns about the handling of 12,000 children by the Division of Family Services, a judge from Cape Girardeau has taken a stand that could lead to immediate and meaningful changes.

Missouri Chief Justice Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr. took the podium last week before a joint session of the Missouri Legislature and let state senators and representatives know that children without suitable parents are a class of Missourians he cares about deeply.

Instead of deflecting blame for the troubles -- including the alleged murder of a 2-year-old Springfield boy while in foster care -- from family court judges, he acknowledged it and took action. He's announced a commission with members from the executive, legislative and judicial branches of Missouri government to offer proposals for the current legislative session.

He had other ideas too, such as developing a best-practices manual for family court judges to follow and establishing standard responses to abuse and neglect cases.

Limbaugh also wants to place children taken from their homes with responsible relatives before turning to the foster-care system, something that aunts, grandparents, cousins and others who are nervously watching their young kin living with strangers should be elated to hear.

Limbaugh wants more and better training for judges, DFS caseworkers and juvenile officers. And he wants the proceedings in family court cases to be more in the open so that those involved will have additional scrutiny in the decisions they make.

This differs greatly from the response that Gov. Bob Holden had to the foster-care problem last month. His idea? Reorganizing the Department of Social Services by replacing the Division of Family Services with two new agencies: the Division of Family Support to administer welfare programs and the Division of Children's Services to oversee foster care and investigate child abuse.

Adding layers of government rarely has helped anything. In addition, with the governor threatening to slash money to elementary and secondary schools as well as the state's universities, how would he propose paying for all the staff it would presumably take to run two new bureaucracies? If Holden's cuts were implemented, foster children would see their schools suffer as well as having a tough time in their home lives.

Limbaugh has commonsense solutions to a serious problem. His commission and the ideas it produces deserve close attention.

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