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Missouri Social Services director plans investigation changes after child fentanyl deaths

Adrienne Williams, a senior social services specialist with the Department of Social Services, waits for interested applicants to fill out forms during a 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
St. Louis Public Radio
Adrienne Williams, of the state Department of Social Services, waits for applicants to fill out forms during a hiring event in 2023 at the Family Support Division building in Overland.

A report detailing child fentanyl deaths will prompt changes in how Missouri child abuse investigators handle the discovery of the dangerous drug, said Department of Social Services Director Robert Knodell.

“These are problems that we want to rip the Band-Aid off and not try to run from or try to paper over,” Knodell said. ”Let's have candid, uncomfortable conversations, so that we'll get better results for the children in Missouri.”

Knodell convened a group of state government officials, health care workers, law enforcement officials and child welfare officers to study child fentanyl deaths after a report came out last year showing that 20 children under age 5 died of overdoses in 2022.

The group found that investigators either failed to adequately examine whether a parent was taking fentanyl or, in some cases, didn’t do enough to remove a child from a home after a mother and child tested positive for the drug in a hospital.

“I was shocked by the severity of these cases that led to the fatalities,” said Jessica Seitz of the Missouri Network Against Child Abuse. “I can reinforce over and over that the Children's Division isn't the only party responsible for child safety in our state. Law enforcement, the juvenile office, there are multiple disciplines responsible for investigating child abuse. But those parties have to be engaged and involved.”

The recommendations include a more rigorous training regimen for investigators on how to spot fentanyl and treat the discovery of the drug as an imminent danger where law enforcement and juvenile officers get involved.

“This is a grave risk to the child,” Knodell said. “It must be reacted to that way.”

The Children's Division has been dealing with staffing issues. Employee turnover, including in St. Louis’ office, produced a large backlog of cases and saddled investigators with unmanageable workloads. In the past year, hiring in St. Louis picked up, and Children’s Division Director Darrell Missey says cases that have been open for longer than 45 days are starting to be closed.

Missey said last year the staff shortage in St. Louis led to triaging, in which cases in which a child is in imminent danger are put ahead of certain neglect cases. Knodell said fentanyl needs to be looked at as “a greater danger than perhaps other substances just given its lethal nature.”

“You look at neglect situations, the risk of fentanyl is screaming red hot as far from where I sit,” he said.

Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, listens to House Minority Leader Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, speak on Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, during the first day of the legislative session at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
State Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, right, listens at a press conference during the first day of the 2023 legislative session in Jefferson City.

Bolstering pay

Child welfare advocates have raised alarm around the pay of investigators.

Currently, the starting salary for investigators is around $43,000 a year. That will go up to around $44,000 based on a 3.2% increase in this year’s budget. While legislators from both parties expressed interest in boosting pay more, neither the House nor the Senate version of the budget went further.

Missouri’s starting salary is far below that of many other states. Illinois child abuse investigators' starting salaries are around $72,000.

“Moving forward, I hope that we'll continue to see an upward trajectory for Children's Division team members, and hopefully it’s significant,” Knodell said.

Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, who unsuccessfully sought a raise for Children’s Division employees, said she was disappointed that the legislature and the governor’s office weren’t pushing for higher raises for investigators.

She noted that prior efforts to boost salaries from legislators fell victim to Gov. Mike Parson’s line-item veto. Parson, for the most part, sought state employee pay increases that are relatively standardized across the board.

“This is absolutely what I expected,” Ingle said. “It's not currently a focus of the legislature. It should be, but it's not. And even though we've heard from DSS the concern with the lack of investigators, and we've heard that pay is the primary issue with being able to recruit and retain them, it still hasn't been an effective motivator to change the hearts and minds of the people crafting the budget.”

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Parson said, “We believe we have a good plan in place for our state employees.”

St. Louis Public Radio's Sarah Kellogg contributed to this report.

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