ST. LOUIS -- About 900 fewer children were placed in Missouri foster care in the fiscal year ending June 30, according to the state's Department of Social Services.
That reversed a trend of steadily increasing numbers of children entering state custody.
Some observers linked the change to the publicity following 2-year-old Dominic James' death on Aug. 21, 2002. His foster father, John Dilley Jr. of Willard, Mo., has pleaded innocent to charges that he shook the boy to death.
In the wake of the child's death, a series of commissions issued recommendations to improve the state's foster care system.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that placements in the foster care system increased to 7,573 in the 2002 fiscal year, up from 6,756 in the 1999 fiscal year. There were 6,620 foster-care placements in the fiscal year in which Dominic died, lower than any of the previous four years.
Fred Simmens, who oversees the state's new Children's Division, said those figures do not reflect the fact that foster-care placements had begun to drop in four of the six months before Dominic's death.
State officials said the falling rate is likely due to several other factors.
Simmens said the phenomenon may be explained in part by reforms that encourage state workers to pursue other options before asking the court to place a child in foster care.
"I can't point to any one thing in particular," Simmens said.
Increasingly, workers organize conferences to work through issues and possibly place a child with relatives. The state also has introduced a system that attempts to standardize decisions by workers who assess the safety of children in abuse investigations.
State officials said the trend also is related to decisions by judges, who have the authority to remove children from their homes.
Susan Block, a St. Louis County Family Court judge, said her court had been working to improve foster care long before Dominic's death, by streamlining hearings and working with extended family members.