Show-Me Neglect

"Deadbeat dads" in the Missouri governor's mansion

If the state of Missouri were a parent, the courts would have taken away the kids years ago.

Neglect, disinterest, felonious frugality, institutional inertia and racism would be the charges, and the state -- and its citizens -- would be hard-pressed to mount a decent defense. Child support is exactly what the state doesn't do. And the governors who have lived in the mansion on the banks of the wide Missouri -- from Joe Teasdale, Kit Bond and John Ashcroft to current placeholder Mel Carnahan -- have been nothing short of deadbeat dads.

The numbers are numbing but telling: The state has custody of 12,057 children, 2,951 of them from the city of St. Louis. There are 897 children in the city who need be adopted. In St. Louis County, it's 232. About 95 percent of the cases in the city, including children needing adoption, are African-American. The city is 53 percent black.

Although it's easy to bash the state agency in charge of the children, the Division of Family Services, to do so misses the mark. That would be tantamount to yelling at overwhelmed ER nurses and doctors for not working faster when they didn't cause the disaster -- they happen to be among the few actually doing something to help.

As a result of poor pay and difficult working conditions, DFS has high staff turnover and continuing difficulties providing adequate care for the growing caseload. If the state child-welfare system is the Russian front, the city DFS office is Stalingrad. The city accounts for 6 percent of the state's population but 24 percent of the children in DFS care. The city DFS office alone has close to 100 vacancies for caseworkers that it can't fill.

The bulk of the blame lies with Jefferson City and the lack of any significant lobbying effort statewide to fix the system by paying caseworkers more money, providing them more training, reducing their caseloads and upgrading their workplaces with basic conveniences such as personal computers and voice mail. And John and Jane Doe are not without guilt. They may get all weepy-eyed when Mark Mc-Gwire drops $1 million on neglected and abused children, but most are too self-absorbed to become foster or adoptive parents.

The low priority the state puts on its children is exemplified by how it reimburses foster parents, who care for most of the children put in the state's care. The shortage of foster homes in the St. Louis area can be explained in part by the pathetic stipend Missouri pays its foster parents -- $216 per month, per child, the 48th-lowest reimbursement rate in the nation.

But not everyone in Jeff City is a Hancock Amendment-loving yokel. This year, Rep. Patrick Dougherty (D-St. Louis) tried to increase the amount of money the state pays foster parents to match what it costs to house a prisoner in a minimum-security prison. That got legislators' attention, and Dougherty got support from both parties on the appropriations committee for an increase, albeit a more modest one than the one he requested.

"We were trying to hit a goal, over a four-year period, to reach the (national) average, which is somewhere between $350 and $400," says Dougherty. "That's a big jump from where we're at now. But hey, lay it out on the table. We're asking folks to take care of kids who are not their kids; they're the state's kids, they're our kids."

That didn't pass. Dougherty and Rep. Quincy Troupe (D-St. Louis) also tried to significantly increase the pay of DFS caseworkers, because the $22,248-a-year starting salary is proving resistible to college graduates entering a low-unemployment economy. The city DFS office was funded to hire 60 new caseworkers last year, but that proved pointless. The only real effect the funding had was to increase the number of vacancies: The state had created new positions, but by not jacking up the salary, it couldn't find workers to take the jobs. The stress of dealing with workloads of up to 30 or 40 cases, each one by definition a possible tragedy in the making, made the compensation seem meager.

Susan Block, presiding judge of the St. Louis County Juvenile Court, thinks the state's approach to the DFS-worker shortage should take a page from the book used to recruit public defenders. Missouri has a problem getting public defenders to work in rural areas, so it pays them a differential, an added bonus to work outstate.

"One of the challenges I would throw down to the Legislature is something in my mind I call an 'urban bounty,'" Block says, meaning that DFS caseworkers in St. Louis, or Jackson County or St. Louis County, would be paid more than others in less overwhelmed areas. "If the state can do that with public defenders, why can't we do the reverse? So the acknowledgment is reality-based: If you've got X number of openings and you can't fill them, if the reality is you always have X percentage of vacancies, then that could be the standard for determining what counties have a pay increase, or it could be based on higher caseloads."

The goal of better pay and a more reasonable caseload is being pursued in an effort to reduce turnover and provide better care for children. One city Juvenile Court worker says the "tremendous turnover" at DFS often results in a "not-really-committed workforce" whose members often work just long enough to find a different job. It's common for a child to have multiple caseworkers, to the frustration of all concerned. Sometimes a birth parent will tell the court, "This is the first time I've seen this (caseworker); the last one told me she was going to get me such-and-such services, and then she left the agency," the court worker says. "That puts the parent and the family at a tremendous disadvantage."

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