With Missouri's backlog of 10,000 child abuse and neglect cases, 'children are not safe'
Officials agree that clearing the backlog at Missouri’s Children’s Division won’t be easy or quick. “I think this is a business decision when it comes down to it," says one Lee's Summit lawmaker. “If we value the children of Missouri, we have to do more.”
When Anna Reilly saw a news article about how Missouri’s Children’s Division was critically understaffed, she felt compelled to be part of the solution.
Last fall, the Washington University graduate was looking for a new career path. And, at a job fair, Reilly was hired on the spot as a Children’s Division investigator responsible for looking into cases of suspected child abuse or neglect.
“I read the article and said: ‘This is something I can do. This is something that I can help with,’” Reilly said.
It didn’t take long for Reilly to discover that the office of the Children’s Division that oversees St. Louis and St. Louis County was critically short of investigators. That meant she quickly had many more cases than she should handle.
About four months into her tenure, Reilly had a weekend shift when, instead of being able to catch up on her existing workload, she was assigned more cases.
She came to the conclusion that her job was unsustainable. After working on her heartbreaking caseload virtually around-the-clock one weekend, she reached her limit.
“I went into Monday, and I worked again,” Reilly said. “And I couldn’t anymore. I couldn’t go on. Because you go in the next day and you have two more cases. But I also had two more cases from the weekend that I was still working on. I could no longer see a path of climbing out of it.”
As of early August, there were only 16 investigators doing the work Reilly used to do — looking into cases of potential child abuse and neglect in St. Louis and St. Louis County. According to Department of Social Services and Children’s Division officials, the office should have roughly 60 investigators.
Because of this staffing shortage, there’s a backlog of more than 6,000 cases with accusations of child abuse or neglect that have remained open for more than 45 days. That’s far more than other regions in Missouri — including offices that oversee Jackson County, Springfield and much of rural Missouri.
Not all of the backlogged cases will be substantiated as child abuse or neglect. Still, Missouri policymakers who follow child welfare issues said the inability to fully investigate thousands of cases puts children at risk.
“The stakes are that every case that has been routed is a child, and a child that is in a potentially unsafe situation,” said Jessica Seitz, the executive director of Missouri KidsFirst, which advocates for statewide policies to stop child abuse. “And the Children's Division has been mandated to keep our kids safe in Missouri. And the stakes are they’re not fulfilling this. They’re not fulfilling this obligation. These aren’t just cases. These are kids.”
Leaders at the Department of Social Services and the Children’s Division have been clear: What’s happening in St. Louis and St. Louis County is a major problem that needs decisive action. Officials in both agencies are trying to raise salaries for investigators and provide more outside support so that the backlog can be reduced.
“In many cases, investigators are going to prioritize the cases that they believe are the highest risk of harm. But that doesn’t mean that there is no risk in those overdue cases,” said Department of Social Services Director Robert Knodell. “Which is why we’re determined to surmount the backlog and make sure that all of our investigations are completed in a timely fashion.”
Both lawmakers and officials in the state’s executive branch stress that clearing the backlog won’t be easy or quick. And getting the investigative team fully staffed may be difficult, especially as other jobs available around the St. Louis region may pay better and provide more flexible schedules.
“It is going to take an effort from a lot of people focusing on it,” said state Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold. “I think it’s easy to feel helpless when you find out about things like this. And if you feel helpless and then you kind of turn away and don’t keep working on it — or don’t try to do something to help — I don’t think that’s the right solution.”
Added Reilly: “Children are not safe. Somebody reported that they might not be safe. And that child? I would not consider them safe until their case is closed."
From call to visit
In Missouri, anyone who believes that a child is being abused or neglected is advised to call the state’s hotline.
When the hotline operators screening the call believe that an accusation is serious enough to warrant more attention, they send it to investigators at regional offices across the state. If a child is in imminent danger, Children’s Division workers will try to see that child within a few hours and make sure law enforcement is contacted.
“You have allegations of physical and sexual abuse, which are our most serious things. And you have neglect, which are most of the cases,” said Children’s Division Director Darrell Missey. “And [the neglect cases] are usually fueled by addiction, mental illness and poverty.”
Investigating a claim of child abuse or neglect requires a number of steps: calling the person who made the accusation, traveling to the home where the suspected abuse or neglect could be occurring, talking with the child’s parents and speaking with the child. Investigators also need to speak with other children in the home or people who may have a relationship with the family in question.
All this can take days, even weeks.
State Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, used to work as an investigator in the state Children’s Division. She said that it wasn’t unusual for her to investigate a specific claim of abuse or neglect — and then find something completely different.
“Ideally, best practice is that an investigator has no more than two cases a day. One would be ideal,” said Ingle, who also worked in other positions in the Children’s Division before being elected to the Missouri House. “Because one case can spiral into all different kinds of things. I had one circumstance where I would get a case of educational neglect. And I would walk in, and there is really bad hoarding going on in the home. It’s absolutely unsanitary. Maybe there are other children there that aren’t even on the original report. Maybe there’s sexual abuse going on. Maybe it’s an open meth lab. These things happen. And so, the majority of cases that I actually referred to court came in as neglect.”
While some cases can end up with an investigator recommending a child be taken out of a home, other times an accusation of abuse or neglect may not be substantiated. Certain circumstances may result in an investigator steering a family toward critical social service programs.
For Reilly, having a large caseload made it difficult to do her job effectively.
She said sometimes she had to drive from one end of the city of St. Louis to a distant part of St. Louis County in the same day — which meant she was spending time traveling instead of being with a family. The hours she worked didn’t always align with the schedules of families being investigated, she said.
“Because we have these allegations, but there’s not necessarily the proof behind them, we go to the homes without calling ahead,” Reilly said. “Because part of the job is to talk about the allegation, but part of the job is to check the safety of the home. We do a no-call knock on the door. We also have to be invited in. There’s no mandatory process for us coming into a home.”
If no one is home, an investigator starts the process again another day.
Cases pile up
The backlog of child abuse and neglect claims is not a new issue. Staff shortages have been an endemic problem in Missouri state government, especially within the Children’s Division.
But both lawmakers and executive branch officials acknowledge that the open case problem in the St. Louis branch of the Children’s Division is an outlier compared to the rest of the state.
“I’m going from an old law enforcement [background] where when you get a case file stacked on your desk, at some point you’re trying to get through case files,” said Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, alluding to his prior experience as a sheriff. “And that’s the wrong area where we want to have anybody in that position. We want to make sure they look at those case files, understand the facts of that case, and then understand when to take action."
“You don’t want to put people in a position where they just can’t handle the job or the stress of it — and not be able to really help somebody,” he added.
As of late August, the St. Louis region had 6,124 cases that were not closed after 45 days. That is more than half of the entire state’s backlog of 10,167 overdue cases.
Ingle said there are a number of reasons a case cannot be closed, including waiting on documents like medical records. It’s also possible that investigators have done everything they need to do in one case but haven’t entered the documentation into the state computer system because they’re busy with other cases.
Still, Ingle said the backlog presents a host of problems for the state and the state employees who are working as investigators, as well as for those most vulnerable: children.
“When a restaurant closes for a day, no one is in imminent danger,” Ingle said. “But the Children’s Division can’t shut down for a day because they don’t have employees. These folks work 365 days a year. They have night workers. They have weekend workers. People work on holidays. I worked on Christmas and Thanksgiving, and they do too. It never stops.”
Currently, the average caseload for an investigator in St. Louis is around 150. That’s far beyond the 12 to 15 cases that an investigator should have.
State Rep. Raychel Proudie, D-Ferguson, is a licensed educator who serves on a joint legislative committee on child abuse and neglect. The lawmaker says that Children’s Division employees have continually told legislators that turnover was causing caseloads to become unsustainable.
“It's impossible for them to do,” Proudie said. “You can't rush them just to satiate lawmakers and folks calling for this to be just clear.”
Of the 6,124 overdue cases, investigators have recorded that they’ve seen 3,205 reported victims of abuse or neglect.
That doesn’t mean that the investigators haven’t seen the remaining kids in the 2,919 cases, but rather they haven’t been able to enter information into the state computer system due to the volume of work. There are other instances in which a child or family cannot be found or have been found out of state.
It wasn’t just Reilly who decided that the workload was unsustainable.
This year, Brittany White worked at the Children’s Division for three months before leaving for another job. She said it was difficult to juggle a demanding job with a relatively low salary of around $43,000 a year, especially when she had children.
If there were more investigators in the St. Louis office to deal with cases, White said, the job would have been more manageable.
“I would have had a work-life balance,” White said. “I wouldn't have been staying in the office longer than I needed to to get the job done. It would have helped me tremendously.”
One response to the backlog has included having other Children’s Division employees take on some of the overdue cases. Missey said while Children’s Division employees from around the state have volunteered to help with the St. Louis region’s backlog, it’s not a permanent solution.
“What we have to concentrate on right now is getting enough people,” Missey said. “It is job one for us to let people know about this important work, to recruit people, to retain people and to do everything we can to make this situation better.”
Lazarus Jameson used to license homes for foster children at the St. Louis office of the Children’s Division. They said their supervisors took on some of the abuse and neglect backlog. But that caused them to fall behind on their primary jobs — which, in turn, delayed other key aspects of the Children’s Division’s work.
“Having problems in one area compounds everything else,” Jameson said. “That we’re having all of these gaps everywhere is creating an enormous amount of unsafeness.”
Ultimately, Coleman said investigators are often placed in untenable positions.
“If you reach a critical threshold where there are so few workers to do such a high volume of work, it is in many ways a moral hazard,” Coleman said. “You know that if you stop to eat dinner with your family, you’re not investigating a kid who is being hurt. And it just becomes something where the option is to not do it all or do it every hour of the day.”
No quick fix
While Missey and other officials see the backlog of cases in St. Louis as an unquestionable problem, they are making progress. Since June, the backlog has been cut from 6,820 overdue cases to 6,124 cases. And lawmakers provided close to $30 million in additional funds during this year’s budget to deal with the Children’s Division’s staffing issues.
But officials both within and outside of the Children’s Division pointed to a number of reasons why hiring and retaining investigators has been difficult.
Knodell said the labor market in St. Louis is much more competitive than in other parts of the state. Not only is Missouri competing with schools and private contractors for potential employees, but also other states.
While the starting salary for an investigator in Missouri is around $43,000 a year, Knodell said Illinois can offer people close to $57,000 for similar work.
“We’ve obviously lost staff due to the pay. We’ve obviously lost staff due to the workload. Both situations. And even when we were able to replace that staff person, replacing that experience is very difficult,” Knodell said.
Knodell said Missouri does not allow his agency to adjust salaries based on cost of living. That means an investigator who lives in, for example, West Plains makes the same amount as someone who resides in Oakville or the city of St. Louis.
“In a perfect world, I would like to pay these individuals a lot more than we do right now,” Knodell said. “But we’re going to continue to do what we can to take those steps. People are not taking these jobs to become wealthy. There is a heart for children. There is a passion for helping to keep kids safe.”
Seitz said another factor that has hurt retention and recruitment of investigators was the 2021 decision to have state employees return to their offices for in-person work.
She said that directive “really turned people off” from working for the Children’s Division.
“This is a job that requires a flexible schedule. And so mandating that state employees come back to the office led to a lot of people quitting. And they don’t make enough money anyway. I had heard incredible frustration,” Seitz said.
Parson said that while he would be open to discussing an arrangement where investigators could do some of their work from home, he added there are benefits to being in a central office.
“If there’s some hybrid version of that, we’re fairly open to that to see what really does work and what’s successful,” Parson said. “But we also know in the private sector you can’t just let people go home and stay home. Right now, our main priority is to get more people involved — to hire people and address the issue. And the issue is trying to take care of these kids.”
Beyond pushing for higher salaries, Knodell said his agency initiated more private contracting in the St. Louis office to handle efforts to place children in foster homes — which he said could free up people who could focus on reducing the abuse and neglect backlog. The agency is also bringing in contract managers to make sure cases are being handled in an efficient manner.
The Department of Social Services also is deploying more preventative services, Knodell said, so that a family can get state assistance before reaching its breaking point and a child suffers.
“We see mental illness, we see substance abuse. And being able to connect that family with services to address the root cause of the situation, rather than waiting for that situation to deteriorate where something is actionable, then we’re able to reduce the number of kids in care,” Knodell said. “We’re able to have stronger healthier families in the state.”
More help on the horizon?
Some lawmakers say they want to alleviate hiring problems at the Children’s Division in the next legislative session.
“We need the public to be taken aback and outraged by this information, because I think it will compel the legislature to do what we need to do to really get to the bottom of this issue,” Proudie said. “We need to pay these folks. We need to pay them. That's the bottom line.”
Several lawmakers said it would be worthwhile to allow for the Department of Social Services to tie salaries to cost-of-living geography. And Ingle agreed with Proudie that making salaries more attractive to potential hires should be a top priority for her legislative colleagues.
“I think this is a business decision when it comes down to it,” Ingle said. “When you look at a really, really high-stress job like this and one where children’s lives are literally in your hands, you would hope that we would want to put our money where our mouth is. If we value the children of Missouri, we have to do more in order to ensure that the folks ensuring their safety are able to come into work every day.”
State law bars private contractors from serving as investigators. Still, Coleman said it may be a good idea to allow for contractors to assist investigators, including assessing whether a child is safe in a particular home.
“And there are states that are doing that,” she said. “I think that could be a really useful tool to try to drop the number of [open] investigations.”
Lawmakers from both parties have praised Knodell and Missey for acknowledging the issues with the St. Louis and St. Louis County child abuse and neglect backlog — and proactively working to reduce the number of open cases. Knodell noted that there are investigators who are currently being trained to add to the 16 currently working in St. Louis.
Knodell, who recently became permanent director of the Department of Social Services, said he’s making it a priority to get more cases closed.
“What I’m trying to do is foster an environment where simply not pointing fingers back and forth at one another because we haven’t been as successful as we should be,” Knodell said. “But we’re all working together. These children are ours. And this is our state.”
Still, without more investigators, Ingle doesn’t expect the backlog situation to significantly improve.
She said that when she was working as an investigator, people would stop getting new cases when they had yet to close previous ones. That’s not possible now, she said, when there are so few investigators. Accusations of abuse and neglect don’t stop simply because workers are overloaded.
“This is a crisis,” Ingle said.
August typically brings in more reports of abuse or neglect, she said, primarily because children go back to school during that month.
“And they’re going to start telling stories about what happened over the summer. And people are laying eyes on them in the community that they don’t get to during the summer,” Ingle said.
“The vacancies in the Children’s Division across the state is something that still keeps me up at night,” she added.
Proudie, a member of the House Budget Committee, said raising the pay of investigators is urgent and vital. Not dealing with the issue now, she said, could mean that children grow up having difficulties as adults.
“If we don't get a handle on this and take this as seriously as we purport ourselves to do, we're going to cultivate kids that could become adults with severe mental health struggles that we are then going to have to deal with from the Children's Division to the Department of Corrections,” she said. “And children are going to die.”
Have you had experience with the Missouri Children’s Division and have ideas on how to make the child abuse and neglect investigations more effective? If you wish to speak with us for future stories, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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