Fixing Missouri child welfare: Darrell Missey has it backwards

September 26, 2022 5:45 am

The rotunda in the Missouri Capitol (Jason Hancock/Missouri Independent).

In his masterful biography The Power Broker, Robert Caro describes how New York City’s “master builder” Robert Moses, became a master destroyer of communities because of a fundamental misunderstanding.

Moses thought that if he just blasted enough highways through enough neighborhoods it would end the city’s chronic traffic congestion.  But each time he opened a new highway, in just a few years, traffic would be as bad – or worse. Moses didn’t understand that each new highway was luring more people into cars and out of mass transit. And all that highway spending caused alternatives to atrophy, compounding the problem and making the cycle ever worse.

Today, the director of the Missouri Children’s Division, Darrell Missey, is making the same sort of mistake.

In a state that tears apart families at a rate 50% above the national average, Missey says he’d really, truly like to do something about that – but he can’t until he can hire a whole lot of additional caseworkers and take other steps to reduce turnover.

Missey has it backwards. In a state where, for decades, the knee-jerk response to family problems has been “take the child and run,” another caseworker hiring binge will simply further widen the net of coercive intervention into families. More children will be taken, and you’ll soon be back where you started: the same lousy system only bigger.

Missey’s approach also is probably illegal.

Although it’s never seriously enforced, federal law requires that states make “reasonable efforts” to keep families together. That’s because of the enormous emotional trauma inflicted on children when they are torn from their families, and the high rate of abuse in foster care itself.  It is a huge mistake to equate child removal with child safety. Missey effectively admits Missouri isn’t making “reasonable efforts” and isn’t going to until after his caseworker hiring spree.

You can’t bolster prevention by waiting until you’ve hired enough caseworkers to ease the turnover problem. But you can ease the turnover problem by embracing safe, proven alternatives to foster care immediately.

Yes, even overloaded workers can do it – with just a little help.  That’s because, contrary to the common stereotype, most parents who lose their children to foster care are neither brutally abusive nor hopelessly addicted. Far more common are cases in which family poverty is confused with “neglect.”

When the problem is poverty the solution doesn’t require hours of intensive casework. When the problem is poverty, the solution is money.  And not a lot of money. Study after study shows that small amounts are enough.

For example, nationwide, at least 30% of America’s foster children could be home right now if their parents just had decent housing. For such families, all that’s needed is enough cash for first and last month’s rent and a security deposit, or perhaps enough for home repairs. Or maybe the children were taken because of a “lack of supervision” charge because a parent couldn’t afford childcare.  So provide the cash for childcare.

Sgt. A.J. Henry of the Kansas City police understood that, when he encountered a homeless family sleeping in a parking lot stairway.  Instead of calling the Children’s Division he called an assortment of charities to provide food and supplies – and fellow officers who pooled their own money to get the family a hotel room.

Give the caseworkers still on the job a flexible pool of basic goods, services – and cash – and they can do, over and over, what Sgt. Henry did in that one case, in very little time.  As children in these kinds of cases stop coming into foster care, workers will have more time to turn to more complex cases.  Their caseloads will decline, their job satisfaction will increase and the turnover problem will ease. (It will ease further if they were given raises, so no caseworker has to sell plasma to make ends meet).

Missouri has proven it knows how to improve child welfare.  Nearly two decades ago, after Dominic James was taken needlessly from his father, largely because of housing issues, only to die in foster care, the Springfield News-Leader did a series of in-depth stories on better ways to do child welfare. They even sent a team to examine how they do it in the state that was then the national leader in child welfare – Alabama (Alabama still takes away children at less than half the rate of Missouri).

Missouri learned from that reporting. The state made changes. Needless removal of children declined significantly.  But memories are short, and after a few years it was back to business as usual.

Now Missouri has another chance to get it right.  Whether it will or not depends on which example Darrell Missey is prepared to follow: Robert Moses or A.J. Henry.

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Richard Wexler
Richard Wexler

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.