The foster care system is overburdened. Missouri leaders should invest in prevention

February 17, 2023 6:00 am

The Missouri Capitol Rotunda (Jason Hancock/Missouri Independent).

Missouri is confronting a nightmarish crisis in child welfare. According to the Missouri Children’s Division, there are over 13,300 children currently in foster care. The Missouri Child Abuse/Neglect Hotline Unit received over 54,000 reported incidents involving over 77,000 children throughout 2021.

At a recent hearing of the state House subcommittee overseeing the budget for the Department of Social Services, Darrell Missey, director of Children’s Division, said, “if you put services on the front end to prevent those things from getting to a place where a child had to be removed, that’s a much better expenditure of money.”

Missey described what the Saint Louis Crisis Nursery has spent nearly 37 years practicing, perfecting and preaching: The virtues of prevention.

Since 1986, the Saint Louis Crisis Nursery has provided short-term respite care for children whose parents or caregivers are dealing with extraordinary and overwhelming duress. Our organization has expanded to five nursery locations where children from birth to age 12 can have a safe place to stay while caregivers deal with the crisis. And we now operate 11 outreach centers spanning from Troy to the heart of St. Louis, and from Ferguson to Jefferson County.

Each nursery location is open 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, 365 days out of every single year —because, like the stress and hardship that can lead to abuse, we recognize that crisis doesn’t take a day off. Neither can we.

In nearly 37 years of serving the region, we have kept over 132,000 children and babies safe from abuse and neglect. Over 99% of all children involved with the Crisis Nursery go on to remain safely with their families with no substantiated reports of abuse or neglect and free from foster care placement. Additionally, every service the Crisis Nursery’s clinically-trained staff offers is both free and voluntary, built on trust and respect for what caregivers are going through.

Our mission to prevent abuse and neglect includes working closely with families to address the underlying causes of crises and overwhelming stress, which helps keep kids out of the expensive foster care system.

The sad reality is that the troublesome state of child welfare in Missouri is a policy choice. But it is one that we can turn around for the better by prioritizing methods like prevention that save children from the terror of physical and emotional trauma while also reducing the enormous financial and bureaucratic burden borne on society.

Holistic crisis care and family empowerment cost an average of $968 per year per child — coming in at 4% of the $25,000 annual cost of foster care for a single child entering the system.

Abuse and neglect is an entirely preventable public health crisis. Child maltreatment has been well researched, and we know what the primary risk factors are, as well as how to intervene to address those factors. Research shows us over and over again that prevention works—and the sooner, the better.

We in the child welfare space are optimistic about the positive impact we can have with dedicated leaders like Missey as partners. Working together, there is much more that can be done to allocate money, resources, and staff to prevention.

It isn’t very often that the morally correct course of action also happens to be the politically and fiscally smart thing to do. It is my hope that we can get this right and come together as good and caring people and as neighbors to make life better, safer, and happier for children in every part of the state.

The future is bright—but only if we find the will and muster the means, to truly invest in preventing childhood trauma, supporting families and helping them stay together, and building stronger, more vibrant communities at the grassroots level where no child is punished for being born into poverty.

The payoff for the future of Missouri, if not for our entire country, would be astronomical. And we can sleep better at night knowing we did everything possible to give every child the best possible start to life any parent could wish for.

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DiAnne Mueller
DiAnne Mueller

DiAnne Mueller is a licensed professional counselor and has been the CEO of the Saint Louis Crisis Nursery since 1994. She has dedicated her professional life to the prevention of child abuse and neglect.