© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Missouri state auditor says audit of Children’s Division would be worthwhile

The Missouri Department of Social Services Family Support Division building on Page Avenue, photographed on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023, 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
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri Department of Social Services Family Support Division building on Page Avenue in Overland on Aug. 29.

Missouri Auditor Scott Fitzpatrick wants to help the state Children’s Division with its staffing shortage but has similar concerns in his office.

The Children’s Division has struggled for several years to retain and recruit people to do critical work, including investigating accusations of child abuse and neglect. Fitzpatrick said it would be worthwhile for his office to audit the agency so policymakers can examine ideas on how to deal with systemic problems.

But Fitzpatrick says such a review may not happen right away, because his office has a number of required audits to perform and doesn’t have the staffing to immediately tackle what he calls “discretionary audits.”

“In this situation, it could be the case that it would be a welcomed encounter, because it would shine a light on the challenges that they're experiencing in the Children's Division,” Fitzpatrick said. “But it all comes down to we have extremely limited resources. We obviously have a lot of audits that we are required to do. And so, discretionary audits such as this one, even though it rises to the level of being very important, it's really hard when there's so many competing issues that come up.”

In the St. Louis area, officials have struggled to recruit and retain investigators — resulting in a backlog of more than 6,000 cases that remain open after 45 days as of mid-August, according to a report earlier this month by St. Louis Public Radio and NPR’s Midwest Newsroom. And the 16 investigators have workloads of around 150 cases, compared to the 12 to 15 that national groups suggest.

Leaders of the Children’s Division and Department of Social Services told lawmakers last week they were making progress with the backlog, but added that getting it eliminated would require hiring enough people.

Fitzpatrick said he couldn’t remember the last time the Children’s Division was audited by the state. And while his review would look at more than just the investigator shortage, he added that a review of the agency could provide useful policy recommendations to lawmakers and executive branch officials.

“An audit could certainly help inform policymakers and the legislature on what steps they can take,” Fitzpatrick said. “It's something that could certainly be worthwhile.”

Social Services spokeswoman Caitlin Whaley said the department “is always willing to collaborate with public officials on ways to best serve Missourians and meet the challenges we face as an agency.”

Fitzpatrick stressed his office is largely focused on required audits, especially for programs that receive federal funding. He added that Gov. Mike Parson vetoed an effort to add about $2.5 million to increase staffing in his office. Parson cited, among other things, his desire to maintain fiscal stability for the state.

“We've been working to try to make sure everybody involved in the budgeting process understands why we need those resources to staff the office back up, so that we can do things like this,” Fitzpatrick said.

Boosting salaries?

Lawmakers have offered a number of policy suggestions to assist the Children’s Division. State Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, for instance, proposed legislation that would allow the agency to hire contractors to assess whether a child is safe. And Department of Social Services Director Robert Knodell said he’s seen some positive trends after the legislature allocated money to improve management and training at the office.

Fitzpatrick, a former House Budget Committee chairman, echoed Republicans and Democrats who have suggested that investigators may need to be paid more than $43,000 a year.

“I know that's been an issue throughout state government. And even with what the governor's done with the cost-of-living adjustments for state employees, which has been significant, some of these are really just hard jobs to fill,” Fitzpatrick said. “And Children's Division jobs can be tough jobs. You’re seeing things and you're dealing with situations that probably are very stressful for the people working in those jobs.”

Lawmakers this year added around $30 million to the Children’s Division that could go toward boosting salaries throughout the agency. Fitzpatrick noted that when he was in charge of the House Budget Committee, his legislative colleagues were “in a vastly different financial situation than we are at this point in time.”

“I was actually having to cut things that were already in the budget from the prior year just to get us back to zero,” he said. “And now we're dealing with a multibillion-dollar fund balance in general revenue, and revenues that continue to exceed the revenue estimates. I think they could do this. We’re spending tremendous amounts of money on other things. They could certainly come up with money to do some kind of targeted salary adjustment, if that was their intent, for the Children’s Division.”

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