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U.S. Rep. Jason Smith eyes changes to child welfare guidelines to keep families together

Jason Smith, Congressman, talks with the press after the tour for a media event at Media Container Corporation in Arnold Missouri on Monday July 1, 2024.
Sophie Proe
St.Louis Public Radio
U.S. Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, talks with the media after a visit at Media Container Corp. in Arnold on Monday.

Republican Missouri Congressman Jason Smith is teaming up with a Wisconsin Democrat to make sure state child welfare agencies don’t break up families because they’re living in impoverished conditions.

That proposed legislation is part of the House Ways and Means Committee's extensive review of the nation’s child welfare agencies, something that’s occurring as Missouri’s Children’s Division has struggled with staff retention and administering programs seen as alternatives to foster care.

Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee held a highly publicized hearing on potential changes to part of the Social Security Act that provides funds for child welfare agencies. One of the points Smith made during the hearing was that the definition of neglect is often so broad that children can be removed from homes due to impoverished living conditions.

Smith’s legislation with U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore of Wisconsin would allow the federal Marylee Allen Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program to provide money to states to address housing instability, transportation and food assistance. It would also stipulate that state plans have to develop policies that living in poverty is not a reason to separate children from parents.

“When you're looking at my congressional district, which is one of the poorest congressional districts in the country, we should not allow a child that just be taken out strictly based on poverty if there can be aid and assistance and flexibility used to help that child's needs,” Smith, R-Salem, said in an interview on Monday. “That's exactly what we need to focus on. And that's what our bill does. It allows more flexibility with how money can be spent.”

Smith said it often costs tens of thousands of dollars to place a child in foster care. He added that money would be better spent “getting a family back on their feet” as opposed to separating families.

“If there's true abuse and neglect, then absolutely the child needs to be taken out,” Smith said. “But poverty should not be the main reason for neglect.”

Smith and Moore’s legislation received backing from Children’s Division Director Darrell Missey.

In a letter to Smith and the Ways and Means Committee, Missey wrote “poverty related difficulties are often accompanied by addiction or mental illness, conditions that could be addressed and properly treated if appropriate supports could be brought around a family.”

“We know that addiction and mental illness occur in affluent communities just like they do in poorer neighborhoods, but rates of removal among the poor are astronomically higher,” Missey wrote. “If the deprivations of poverty are addressed, people can often address these other problems and keep their families intact. We must do everything we can to make sure that poorer families have that same opportunity.”

Darrell Missey, director of the State of Missouri's Children's Division, on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, at St. Louis Public Radio’s headquarters in Grand Center.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Darrell Missey, director of the State of Missouri's Children's Division, on Aug. 23 at St. Louis Public Radio.

Missey faced heat over neglect cases

Since becoming Children’s Division director, Missey has often spoken about the broadness of Missouri’s definition of neglect and how it often ensnares families who are poor as opposed to people who are neglecting their children’s needs.

For instance, during an interview discussing a massive backlog of unfinished cases in St. Louis last year, Missey talked about how staffing shortages required his agency to prioritize situations in which children are in imminent danger.

“And those are normally fueled by addiction, mental illness and poverty,” Missey said. “And so, you have some triage going on, obviously, because you got things that are crimes and are emergent — you put on the front burner. And then the dirty house case, the educational neglect case, those things may take some more time because you're not thinking somebody's going to be harmed today because of that.”

But a recent report looking into fentanyl deaths among children evoked some sharp questions about whether that type of philosophy is failing children around the state.

Jessica Seitz, executive director of the Missouri Network Against Child Abuse, who helped work on the report, said during an episode of the Politically Speaking Hour on St. Louis on the Air earlier this year that Missey’s statement “about neglect is a dangerous generalization of the term neglect.”

“These cases that we reviewed were neglect cases,” Seitz said. “It is a fact that a majority of reports and cases in the Children's Division are neglect. Where we may not be on the same page, and where I have concerns based on my work with this committee, is how and when neglect is being triaged.”

In an interview in mid-May, Missey said investigators plan to treat evidence of fentanyl the same way they react when they uncover child abuse. He said a child being exposed to drugs is not neglect, since abuse by definition is the imposition of harm on a child.

“I’ve messaged this already, and I’m messaging it now: If we see a child who has been exposed to fentanyl, we need to act just like they’re being physically abused and protect them with whatever tools we have,” Missey said.

Asked whether Missey’s comments from last year amount to a rationalization to prioritize certain types of abuse and neglect cases because of staffing shortages, Smith replied: “There's a big difference between true neglect and poverty. They're not the same. They can get mixed in the same basket.”

“We are definitely at a shortage with caseworkers. In the state of Missouri, we're getting a little bit better. But it's a national shortage,” he said. “It's not just in our state.”

The Missouri House speaks about making it harder to change the state constitution on Thursday, May 16, 2024, during the waning days of the legislative session at the state Capitol in Jefferson City.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Missouri legislature provided a 3.2% raise for Children's Division workers — a boost that some lawmakers contend is inadequate given competition in other states and the private sector.

Pay remains an issue

Missey said that hiring improved in places like St. Louis over the past few months. And he added that’s allowed his agency’s St. Louis and St. Louis County office to reduce a backlog of thousands of unfinished cases down to a few hundred.

“We are establishing that culture now, and I think it’s going to continue,” he said. “I think we’re turning a corner.”

Missouri lawmakers are skeptical that any momentum can be sustained without substantial increases in pay for Children’s Division investigators. This year, investigators received a little more than a 3% pay increase — bumping the starting salary up to around $44,000 a year.

That pales in comparison to states like Illinois, which is paying investigators a starting salary around $72,000. And it’s also much less than jobs investigators could get at schools or hospitals or as Children’s Division contractors.

“Quite frankly, these are some of the absolute toughest, but most important jobs, in the state, and therefore they should be considered in a different pay scale and considered for these pay increases,” said Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern, D-Clay County.

Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, said she has grave concerns about being able to retain investigators — which will continue a cycle of the agency being unable to effectively look into claims of abuse and neglect.

“Any skilled investigator or employee at the Children’s Division who’s under tremendous stress is dealing with so many cases simultaneously. And with the incredible stress of having to ensure the safety of kids, that weighs on you,” said Ingle, who previously worked at the Children’s Division. “So if you can go somewhere else and make significantly more money without having to deal with that why would you not do that? And so, if we want to recruit folks who are willing to stay, we need to pay them what they’re worth.”

Smith said Missouri lawmakers are going to have to prioritize ways to retain child welfare employees.

“They're definitely going to have to look at pay and benefits, whatever it does to attract the workforce to fill the jobs to make sure that we're able to follow the needs that's necessary to implement everything with child and children division services,” he said, adding that Missouri is also struggling to provide competitive pay for health care workers and teachers.

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