Study finds fault with state child welfare system

Sunday, March 14, 2004

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Missouri could lose $1.5 million in federal funding if it fails to develop a plan to fix its system for caring for abused and neglected children, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said.

Federal officials evaluated Missouri's child welfare program as part of reviews of all 50 states to determine if the state plans conform with the Social Security Act's child welfare requirements.

A check of the 43 state reviews on the Health and Human Services Web site showed that Missouri was one of 16 states that did not conform with federal standards in seven measures related to keeping children safe from abuse and neglect, providing foster children with stable living situations, and protecting foster children's well-being with education and mental health services.

Twenty-five other states did the same or worse than Missouri on broader assessments, including data collection, training and foster parent licensing.

Missouri failed to meet two of seven systemwide assessments. The study found the case review system lacked a process for ensuring each foster child had a permanency hearing by one year from when the child entered foster care. The state also did not offer an adequate array of services for foster children, particularly in mental health and substance abuse.

"It's an extraordinarily high standard that, realistically, is nearly unattainable in each and every section of the review," Steve Roling, head of the Missouri Department of Social Services, said.

Missouri now has 90 days to develop a plan showing how it will address the problems.

The Department of Health and Human Services sent a letter Thursday to Roling saying the Missouri Department of Social Services could avoid a $1.5 million penalty if it wrote an improvement plan, got it approved, then worked to implement it.

Roling blamed Missouri's poor showing partly on the fact that only 50 cases from the counties of Jackson, St. Louis and Jasper were analyzed. That meant on certain measures, fewer than a handful of cases were reviewed.

"Despite that," he said, "the (review) is still a helpful tool for the work we must do."

Missouri made several changes to its child welfare system after the August 2002 death of 2-year-old Dominic James, of Springfield. The boy's foster father was convicted of fatally abusing the toddler and was sentenced in January to 15 years in prison.

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