Auditor - Abuse reports see slow response

Friday, April 9, 2004

Improvements have been made, but caseworkers are still too slow in responding to child abuse hotline calls and are not adequately following up on cases where intervention and services are needed, State Auditor Claire McCaskill said Thursday.

McCaskill released results of an audit that looked at how abuse cases were handled in Greene and Jackson counties and the city of St. Louis in 2003. It was a follow-up to her office's child abuse hotline report in December 2000.

She said improvements have been made since then, with three of seven safety goals reached, and another three nearly reached. There's been a decrease in the percentage of incorrectly classified calls, and hotline operators and caseworkers are getting more guidance.

But McCaskill said more needs to be done to guarantee the safety of children whose lives are at risk.

"We have to take this problem very seriously," McCaskill said. "There is no more important job in the state than protecting children who potentially could die at the hands of someone who purports to love them."

Caseworkers are supposed to make face-to-face visits within 24 hours of a call warranting investigation. But auditors found that in 16 percent of cases, caseworkers did not see the child within the required time frame. In one case, it took 13 days before a caseworker contacted a young teenage boy who had been kicked out of his house and threatened with harm if he returned.

Auditors also found that caseworkers did not interview the children apart from the alleged perpetrator in 19 percent of cases.

Child abuse is a problem statewide. In 2003, Cape Girardeau County had 732 calls to the hotline; 67 of the calls were proven to be true, the Missouri Department of Social Services said. Scott County had 809 calls with 100 turning out to involve actual abuse or neglect, and Perry County had 220 calls with 25 proving true.

The auditors also found that 39 percent of abuse and neglect reports were overdue by three months, and nearly half were not completed in the required 30 days, causing delays in delivery of services to families.

In one case, a child with medical problems possibly caused by her mother did not have a services case opened until six months after the hotline call.

Auditors also found that follow-up calls and visits were not made promptly in cases where services were deemed necessary. Caseworkers are supposed to monitor the child and family closely by contacting the family, teachers, counselors.

In one possible high-risk sexual abuse case, contact was not made for three months. In another case, a 5-year-old child died from lack of medical attention after the caseworker verified medical treatment with the mother but not with the physician.

The Department of Social Services, which has reorganized itself in the last year to give greater prominence to children's issues, welcomed the critique.

"The department feels good about the report," said Chris Whitley, the department's associate director. "We knew it was coming and there were no surprises."

The department welcomes any audit, he said. "It's a tool for self improvement." Still, Whitley said the department needs resources to hire more caseworkers and provide better training.

The good news, he said, is that the recently passed House budget proposal includes a new allocation of $9.3 million this fiscal year to upgrade the system, with a five-year goal of nationally accrediting each county's children's division office.

"We're optimistic. If we are able to have well-trained people and reduce their caseloads, our response time will increase and there will be better overall protection of children," Whitley said.

Pam Jenkins is the director of Court Appointed Special Advocates of Southeast Missouri. She agreed that more money is needed to fight the problem.

"Any new funding that is directed toward social services would greatly benefit children, whether it's more investigators in the beginning, or caseworkers later on," she said. "As a society, we can do better."

The auditor's report focused on a relatively small segment of the Children's Division's work, hotline reporting, "our 911," Whitley said.

McCaskill noted that a federal report in March found Missouri -- along with 15 other states -- was deficient in seven areas regarding safe and stable placement of children in foster care. Whitley said Missouri was in compliance with many other standards in what he described as a complex federal review.

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