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Missouri lawmakers propose major change in overseeing child abuse claims

Drawing of child and scales of justice
Susannah Lohr
St. Louis Public Radio
Some lawmakers want juvenile officers to be overseen by the attorney general's office, as opposed to the judiciary.

Missouri lawmakers are proposing a significant change to the state’s child welfare system, moving oversight of juvenile officers from judges to the state attorney general’s office.

Supporters of the move say it would remove what they see as a conflict of interest for those who make critical decisions about abuse and neglect claims. Juvenile officers strongly oppose it.

In Missouri, the state’s Children’s Division is responsible for investigating abuse and neglect claims made through the state’s hotline. If Children’s Division investigators believe abuse or neglect occurred, they provide a written referral to juvenile officers.

The juvenile officer then determines whether the report supports a petition alleging abuse and neglect. If so, a petition will be filed and the child likely will come under state care.

Currently, judges oversee juvenile officers — though their direct supervisors are not judges who hear child custody cases. Some legal and political leaders have been critical of this arrangement, contending it violates the principle around separation of powers. Josh Gupta-Kagan, a professor at Columbia Law School, wrote in 2014 that having judges oversee juvenile officers “differs from the American norm of executive branch agencies and lawyers filing and prosecuting civil and criminal cases on behalf of the government.”

“By granting juvenile officers, who are subject to judges’ supervision, exclusive power to file child abuse and neglect and juvenile delinquency cases, Missouri law concentrates power into the hands of one branch of government,” Gupta-Kagan wrote. “Missouri law thus empowers individual judges to set child welfare and juvenile justice policy by managerial decree. Subordinate judicial branch officials face pressure to file and litigate cases to please their boss, the judge, who hired them, supervises them, and has power to fire them.”

Rep. Travis Fitzwater speaking on the floor of the Missouri House
Tim Bommel
Missouri House of Representatives
Missouri Rep. Travis Fitzwater, R-Callaway County, photographed in 2022, filed legislation in December that would have the state attorney general's office oversee juvenile officers by mid-2027.

Sen. Travis Fitzwater, R-Callaway County, filed legislation in December that would have the state’s attorney general office oversee juvenile officers by mid-2027. It’s part of a multifaceted bill that also seeks to expand guardian ad litem coverage for children.

“Once I got into the Senate, I started getting calls from constituents dealing with foster care issues, and the judicial system, and judicial officers and guardian ad litems,” Fitzwater said. “And it just kind of feels like the system is failing kids.”

Fitzwater said having the attorney general oversee juvenile officers could give the officials more leeway to make difficult decisions.

“I hold that there is an inherent conflict of interest, because … obviously they have an interest in their own job and being on the side of the judges,” Fitzwater said. “That's why on the bill, we're putting juvenile officers in under the attorney general's office and they can have oversight.”

One of the people who has been pushing for years to have an agency other than judges oversee juvenile officers is Children’s Division director Darrell Missey. He’s quoted in Gupta-Kagan’s paper describing some of the problems with the arrangement. A spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services said that Missey is not taking an active role in pushing for Fitzwater’s bill.

“We have way too many kids in the system, we need to do better, like a lot better, to fight for these kids,” Fitzwater said. “And I just think that's one change that probably is monumental, especially to the juvenile officers.”

The Missouri Senate on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, during the first day of the legislative session in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri lawmakers returned to work on Wednesday.

Pushback from officers

Some juvenile officers, including Bill Prince, have taken a dim view of Fitzwater’s legislation.

Prince, the chief juvenile officer for Greene County, said that making juvenile officers state employees will be expensive — especially since some juvenile officers get paid from a mixture of county and state funds. He also disputed the idea that juvenile officers lack the ability to make independent decisions since they’re overseen by judges.

“I kind of firmly believe that one of the beauties of the juvenile system as it exists in Missouri is that it is very localized, and that each local juvenile office can kind of adapt its programs and services to the unique needs of the community and the youth that live in that community,” Prince said. “We are not part of a large centralized state bureaucracy. And I think most people would agree that making bureaucracies bigger seldom results in better performance outcomes.”

The Children’s Division is struggling to recruit and retain investigators, especially in the St. Louis region. That’s led to a sizable backlog in cases and a push from a bipartisan group of lawmakers to try to raise pay in the Children’s Division to recruit more people and prevent turnover.

“I feel for the Children's Division and those investigators, because that is an extremely tough job,” Prince said. “The way that gets solved is more people and more pay so that they can do their job appropriately.”

Fitzwater said he’s aware that some juvenile officers aren’t thrilled with his proposal but added that it's an important component of a longer conversation about transforming Missouri’s approach to vulnerable children.

“It's worth the discussion, and maybe we get some momentum on it,” Fitzwater said. “At a minimum, we ought to be giving these kids the right to counsel and then adding maybe some other pieces to it.”

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