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Jackson County foster kids are missing visits with their birth parents for months at a time

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Laura Ziegler
Shayla Curts' newborn and toddler were taken into protective custody in June. She's only seen them twice since then, even though her mother has been approved to supervise visits.

With almost 900 kids in foster care and just 19 social workers, Jackson County's Children’s Division is short hundreds of workers and has the worst case-overload problem in the state.

Shayla Curts, 22, had been living at Newhouse KC, a domestic violence shelter in Kansas City, Missouri, for several months after the birth of her second child. She said it gave her a safe place to breast feed her infant and care for her 4-year-old while trying to get back on her feet.

But she was asked to leave Newhouse after what she claims were false allegations of misconduct. Because Curts didn't have a stable housing alternative, on June 15, 2022, investigators from the Jackson County Children’s Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services and two policemen came to take her children into protective custody.

“I was still in between weaning (the baby) off breastfeeding and starting formula, and worried she was having trouble with the formula,” Curts said recently at a midtown coffee shop. “There was a lot the case manager needed to know.”

The case worker gave her a business card, but when Curts called to find out where her kids were, the case worker had left for vacation.

When she showed up a week later at the 16th Circuit Family & Juvenile Court for her first hearing, there was a different case worker. But that person almost immediately went on medical leave. Curts had heard her kids were jumping from one foster home to another, but she couldn’t find out where they were or when she’d next see them.

Over the last year, Jackson County has been hemorrhaging case workers, with vacancy rates in the hundreds. There were 887 kids in foster care as of end of July and only 19 case workers to handle their cases, officials told KCUR. Many workers left during the pandemic and didn’t return, deciding instead to take less stressful and emotionally draining jobs for higher pay.

Low pay, trauma

Brian West, regional director of the Kansas City office of the Children’s Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services, said by some measures salaries for Missouri child welfare workers may be the lowest in the nation. This makes it hard to recruit and retain them.

"(Social workers) come to this work because they want to help families and they're so overwhelmed, they feel like they’re just treading water,” West said.

Not only do workers feel they can’t do their jobs, West said they often suffer what’s known as secondary trauma, the experience of absorbing the grief, anxiety and anger that comes with routinely seeing the impact on families when parents are children are separated.

They often put themselves at risk while making home visits where domestic violence and substance abuse are issues. It takes a toll on their psychological and physical health.

“When you do this work day in and day out and try to support these families, you take some of that trauma onto yourself,” West said. “And we’re seeing a significant amount of that.” 

Laura Ziegler
Juan Mendez now lives with his girlfriend and their 18-month-old baby. His other two children are in foster care, in part, he says, because he's had six different caseworkers over two years.

The case managers are the primary liaison between parents and the court in cases of child abuse and neglect. They set up visits between families and kids in foster care. They find therapy and treatment programs and sign off on how well a parent is meeting court-ordered requirements for family reunification.

Juan Mendez, 23, married right out of high school and had two children within a few years. He worked 50 hours a week, overnights, at Quick Trip, but the family still had a hard time making ends meet.

Mendez said he knows now he and his wife were too young to have a family. The marriage became toxic.

“We both had anger issues, and both became physical," he said. "We were irresponsible with the kids and that led to the state getting involved.”

In 2020, the Jackson County Children’s Division placed the kids in foster care.

Today, Mendez lives on a quiet residential street in Independence, Missouri, with his girlfriend, Gracie, and their 18-month-old baby, Arabella. He has a steady job in Olathe, Kansas. Gracie is a substitute teacher.

Mendez continues to adhere to the requirements of his court order: going to therapy, getting psychological evaluations, taking anger management and parenting classes. He has been rewarded by progressively more time with his four-year-old son and three-year-old daughter.

But the court’s not holding up its end of the deal, he said. There have been three-month periods when he's gone without seeing his children. It's been hard to get questions answered, team meetings to occur or instructions for where and when he would see his kids.

“So far I’m on case worker number six or seven in two years,” Mendez said. “Some talk with you and some don’t. It’s really chaos, is what it feels like.”

'It's unconscionable'

Laurie Snell has been a family court attorney for more than two decades. She says the employment crisis at the Children’s Division is not only delaying family reunification, it might be breaking the law.

“Families are getting maybe a one-hour visit a month, even though the law and the practice has been that, in most cases, if your family is separated you should at least have weekly visits,” Snell said. “I’ve worked in the system for over 25 years and there's always ebbs and flows, exodus of workers, but never this bad. It’s unconscionable."

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Laura Ziegler
Zoda Ballew became a social worker in the Jackson County Children's Division right out of college and said she immediately had as many as 25 cases after two months of training. Accreditation standards recommend 15 cases per worker.

Zoda Ballew, 25, graduated two years ago from the University of Kansas with a psychology degree and, after two months of training, began as a contract social worker for $34,000 with the Missouri Department of Social Services.

She didn’t carry as many cases as social workers employed directly by the state, but she still had 25 at one time, well over what advocates say is a reasonable load. Case workers with the state may have 45 cases at a time, according to officials. The council that accredits social workers in Missouri recommends no more than 15.

Ballew said the hardest part of her job were the bureaucratic obstacles she faced in trying to reunite families after relatively minor infractions.

"There was often nothing there, no reason for a kid to be in foster care," she said. “I remember one of the these cases took an entire year. It was like the court pushed for them to remain separated."

The job took an emotional toll. “I didn’t realize the stress I was bearing until I was out of the profession,” she said. "For some people, that stress is overwhelming. Case workers coming to work every day crying."

Ballew is starting law school at UMKC this fall, planning to earn a degree she knows will allow her to still work in the child welfare system.

The director of the Missouri Department of Social Services Children’s Division testified to a joint committee of the legislature last December he was doing his best to “stem the bleeding,” but Gov. Mike Parson vetoed a $2 million funding increase in the budget. The state Senate refused to take up the House override.

Officials say this crisis will continue if they can't offer prospective social workers higher pay, counseling support to address their secondary trauma and prevention services to keep kids out of the system in the first place.

Shayla Curts had the first visit in a month with her infant and toddler this past weekend. It was only the second time she’d seen them since June.

She has a new caseworker who has been responding and appears committed to helping Curts get her kids back as soon as possible. And she’s started a job at McDonald's.

“It should be 60 days, four checks or so and I’ll have at least enough to get accepted into an apartment,’" she said. “I need housing before I can get my kids back. My plan is to have a place, and move in, within 60 days.”

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