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Missouri lawmakers eye higher pay for state Children's Division workers

Recruitments materials and blank name badges are displayed during a Department of Social Services hiring event on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023, at the Family Support Division building in Overland, Mo. DSS is has a shortage of investigators, which has led to a backlog of cases. The backlog has also created high caseloads for investigators, which sometimes leads them to quit and increases the shortage.
Tristen Rouse
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St. Louis Public Radio
Recruitments materials and blank name badges are displayed during a Department of Social Services hiring event on Aug. 29 at the Family Support Division building in Overland. DSS has a shortage of investigators, which has led to a backlog of cases.

A bipartisan group of Missouri lawmakers is optimistic they can make big changes to how the state’s child welfare agency operates and, perhaps, increase worker salaries beyond what Gov. Mike Parson is proposing.

Missouri’s Children’s Division is responsible for investigating child abuse and neglect claims. But the inability to hire and retain staff in the St. Louis area last year resulted in a backlog of more than 6,000 cases — prompting alarm from child welfare agencies and legislators.

Two Republican lawmakers who have spent years monitoring the Children’s Division, Rep. Hannah Kelly, R-Mountain Grove, and Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, say that lawmakers need to sign off on major policy changes to how the Children's Division handles cases around a child’s welfare.

“The government was never intended to be a parent,” said Kelly, chairwoman of the House Children and Families Committee. “And my objective and goal is to make sure that the department does our work to ensure that we either get kids back to strong [biological] families or we get them into strong adoptive homes.”

Added Coleman, chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, “I think that you have a lot of people who really are invested in trying to solve this problem, and so I feel optimistic.”

“I've been working in this space since I showed up at the statehouse,” Coleman said. “And there are a myriad of reasons why our system is broken. And one of the most frustrating things about dealing with big difficult items like this is there is no silver bullet, there's no one thing that will make it better.”

Coleman’s committee recently conducted a hearing on her bill, which among other changes would allow the Children’s Division to contract with private entities that could assess a child’s safety.

Currently, the Children’s Division cannot use contractors in investigating child abuse or neglect. Coleman’s bill would still require Children’s Division personnel to make the final call on whether a claim is substantiated or not.

“A lot of states have allowed agencies to contract out for other people who do this work, who know what they're looking for and can get help to kids faster,” Coleman said. “And so I'm hopeful that will take place.”

Kelly has said that she wants to increase the amount of contracting within the Children’s Division, especially when it comes to placing children in foster homes. She said caseworkers who work for private agencies tend to be paid better and are generally more enthusiastic about their job than people who work as state employees.

“If I could be governor for a day, you want to know what I would do? I would privatize the casework,” Kelly said. “I would let the state entity stay in charge of the hotline calls and the overall management of taking care of the over 12,000 kids in our care,” Kelly said. “But I would privatize the casework because I don't sit here pretending to have all the answers.”

Both Department of Social Services Director Robert Knodell and Children’s Division Director Darrell Missey have been lukewarm to Kelly’s idea. They told St. Louis Public Radio last year that contractors typically have limits on the amount of work they will do for the state. They both, however, have expressed enthusiasm for Coleman’s proposal to contract with people assessing the safety of children.

Kelly said he wasn’t surprised that her idea wasn’t well received, adding that she and Knodell “have two different jobs.”

“His job is to manage the department. He's doing yeoman's work … and he and Director Missey are doing wonderful things. I respect them tremendously,” Kelly said. “My job is to be creative. My job is to hold accountability to departments. My job is to look for new solutions. Because you and I both know, what has been done since long before we ever came along isn't always working.”

Missouri House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, speaks alongside House Democrats during a press conference in response to Gov. Mike Parson’s State of the State on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in Jefferson City. This is Parson’s last address due to term limits.
Eric Lee
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St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, speaks alongside House Democrats during a press conference in response to Gov. Mike Parson’s State of the State on Wednesday in Jefferson City.

Dems to push for higher Children’s Division salaries

One of the well-received aspects of Parson’s State of the State speech was a desire to boost most state worker pay by 3.2%.

But some Democratic lawmakers said last week that such an increase was not sufficient for the Children’s Division, which has struggled to recruit and retain people for years.

“I think it's very important that we highlight the Children's Division, especially because we're literally talking about children's lives,” said House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield. “And we know that if we are not recruiting enough staff and paying them appropriately to continue to be here, that children will die. We have seen that in our state, and that will continue unless we make it a priority.”

State Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, the ranking member of the House Children’s and Families Committee, said she plans to make boosting salaries for Children’s Division employees a priority.

“As far as state departments are concerned, that one's my North Star,” said Proudie, who is also a member of the House Budget Committee. “My priority is for these departments that are working with children, that we are making sure that our people and employees are there to take care of them.”

DSS spokeswoman Baylee Watts said her agency appreciates “the governor’s proposal of a 3.2% pay increase along with his continued support as we advocate for better pay for our team members.”

“Additionally, we are hopeful that Gov. Parson’s proposal will continue to help with recruitment and retention efforts,” Watts said.

She said that the starting salary for a child abuse investigator is around $43,000 a year and that the pay increase would boost that to $44,188 a year. She went on to say there are different job classifications to pay people with more experience more money.

Parson said last week that state salaries have gone up more than 20% since he came into office in 2018. He also said that pay increases needed to be structured in a way that is sustainable in less fruitful budgetary years.

“The mentality of state government is one year at a time, I think we all know that it's been around here,” Parson said. “But when you start doing pay raises, and you start doing increases, whether it's mental health, education, roads, whatever it is, you’ve got to be able to maintain it too. So I think we've really moved the needle on state wages. And we're going to keep moving forward on that.”

Coleman and Kelly said they are not opposed to paying Children’s Division workers more. But they both added that shouldn’t affect attempts to try to make changes to how the agency handles child welfare cases.

“We have to have the financial support so they can focus on the job we’re asking them to do,” Kelly said. “We have also got to have the environment that is very, very positive and supportive beyond the money.”

Senator Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, gestures as he mocks Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, who pauses comments for decorum during session on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, in Jefferson City. Senate Republican leadership has clashed with members of the Missouri Freedom Caucus holding up business.
Eric Lee
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St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Bill Eigel, R-Weldon Spring, gestures as he mocks Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, who pauses comments for decorum during session on Thursday in Jefferson City. Senate Republican leadership has clashed with members of the Missouri Freedom Caucus holding up business.

Knodell caught in Senate skirmish crossfire

By all accounts, Knodell received high marks for his performance running one of Missouri’s most difficult agencies. But his future at the agency, as of Monday afternoon, is murky.

A group of Republican senators known as the Freedom Caucus is blocking approval of Parson’s appointees until the Senate approves a ballot item making it more difficult to amend the constitution.

Senate President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden says that if the Senate doesn’t act by Friday, Knodell and a host of other appointees could be banned for life from serving. And while the Columbia Republican said Parson could withdraw the nominees and reappoint them, the Senate would need to approve such a move.

“If they are withdrawn, and brought back as a regular session appointee, they would not be able to serve until such time that they were confirmed,” Rowden said. “So then they would have to step away from their duties until we got them confirmed or some action was taken.”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services deferred comment on the standoff to Parson’s office. Parson said in an interview Thursday that blocking his appointees was not a particularly strong leverage point — and added “there's different things we can do, and we can just put them back in place.”

There is some possibility that the standoff over the nominees may be ending soon. The Freedom Caucus put out a statement saying it is willing to let “a majority of nominees” through in exchange for the Senate holding hearings on raising the constitutional amendment threshold.

Whether Knodell is in that slate of nominees that the Freedom Caucus will release is not known.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.