Government reports and legislative hearings always come with plenty of grandstanding and bluster.
On occasion, they also shine a light on shortcomings and illustrate a need for action. In this state, that’s exactly the case with a House committee hearing last week that followed a study with the sobering title, “Missouri’s Efforts to Protect Children Missing from Foster Care.”
There’s no need for grandstanding here, not when a study from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General raised alarming questions about the failure to identify foster children who go missing in Missouri. The report also revealed a lack of intervention to reduce the flight risk.
At the center of those concerns is the Missouri Department of Social Services, the agency with ultimate responsibility for the well-being of foster children.
In the study, a task force examined the state’s list of 94 missing foster children from July 31, 2019. After excluding 35 cases of children who didn’t have documented instances of going missing in their files — which seems like a red flag in and of itself — investigators turned their focus to 59 cases of children who went missing and the efforts made to return them to foster care.
The findings, and the response from the directors of the Department of Social Services and the DSS Children’s Division, did not inspire confidence. Testimony to the Missouri House Committee on Children and Families indicated that about 50% of the missing children were 17-year-old runaways who were waiting to age out of the system.
The Children’s Division was unable to provide evidence that it took the required actions to locate missing children. In some cases, it couldn’t show that required health and safety checks were completed. Lawmakers expressed concerns that the state didn’t conduct assessments to determine if a missing child had been a victim of trafficking.
Instead, committee members heard non-answers and disheartening bureaucratese on policy changes, stop-doing lists and a work culture that changes at a glacial pace.
All this for a report that’s devoted to 94 known cases. It’s enough to make anyone shudder at the thought of other children out there who fall through the cracks.
This hearing left a strong impression that the Department of Social Services, an agency devoted to the protection of the state’s most vulnerable children, is a monolithic bureaucracy that’s slow to change and caught up in processes rather than practicalities.
As the federal study points out, children get hurt unless Missouri lawmakers use their oversight role to initiate change.