KANSAS CITY, Mo. —
Lawmakers on Tuesday questioned two top leaders with the Missouri Department of Social Services about a lack of documentation for kids that go missing from the state’s foster care system.
The questions came after a new federal report released last week said Missouri’s foster care system is not doing enough to locate or track missing children. The U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General’s report found the state does not have policies for identifying children who may be at heightened risk of going missing or interventions to reduce their risk.
“It’s not for me to sit here and say that we’re not going to take responsibility,” acting director of the Missouri Department of Social Services Jennifer Tidball told lawmakers on Tuesday. “I just think that it’s important to know what we are up against.”
Tidball said caseworkers have large loads of cases. She also pointed toward decisions made by a previous administration on the culture shift in the department that may have led to less documentation. She gave testimony before the House Children and Families Committee on Tuesday.
The inspector general report found several deficiencies within the foster care system.
In 2019, 978 children were missing at some point from Missouri foster care, the report found.
“There wasn’t any evidence that Missouri took the required actions to locate children who went missing,” said Brian Whitley, regional inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s Office of Evaluation and Inspections in Kansas City.
The report studied 59 cases in Missouri, finding most of the children who went missing (49 of the 59 children) had risk factors associated with a higher risk of going missing.
“It’s our obligation from a moral duty to make sure that the children are in as safe a placement as possible and receiving the care and support that they need,” Whitley said.
Experts who work with placing foster children in Missouri homes say it is vital to make sure screening happens to identify children at risk of going missing.
“I welcome the recommendations and the opportunity to partner going forward,” said Cornerstones of Care President and Chief Executive Officer Denise Cross, who testified at Tuesday’s hearing.
Cross said her agency already started to implement steps toward better documentation for foster placements even before the OIG report. She also said Cornerstones has a full-time staff member dedicated to at-risk kids and working with them in their setting. That staff member will immediately notify law enforcement and make sure the search begins immediately if a child runs away or goes missing, she said.
“We just need to use the data and look at the trends and make the adjustments, because these are the most vulnerable kids, and they rely on us to keep them safe and with safe people and in safe places,” Cross said.
Jennifer Townsend, vice president of Children and Youth Programs for Foster Adopt Connect, said if the public is worried about kids that go missing, they need to make that known to lawmakers.
“They need to let their representatives know, their senators know so that they can support the children’s division in having the resources they need,” she said.
Townsend said Foster Adopt Connect specifically needs help with workers in its behavior intervention program to help keep kids in residential placements rather than going into residential facilities or group homes.