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Missouri bill would let private contractors assist in child abuse investigations

Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman enters the Missouri Senate on the first day of the 2023 legislative session.
Annelise Hanshaw
Missouri Independent
Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman enters the Missouri Senate on the first day of the 2023 legislative session.

Missouri faces a backlog of child abuse and neglect investigations — the Kansas City region has the most, with 3,036 cases that have been open for at least 46 days. With a shortage of investigators at the state's Children’s Division, lawmakers consider hiring private contractors to help.

A bill winding its way through the legislature seeks to ease backlogs in child abuse and neglect investigations by allowing Missouri’s social services agency to outsource some work involving child abuse and neglect investigations to private contractors.

Sponsored by Republican state Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman of Arnold, the bill was voted out of committee unanimously in January and is awaiting consideration by the full Senate.

Elements of Missouri’s child welfare system are already handled by private companies — including some foster care case management and in-home services — but not abuse and neglect investigations. Those are handled by state employees, sometimes with assistance from local law enforcement. After the state receives a hotline call, Children’s Division workers are responsible for assessing a child’s safety.

In recent years, staffing shortages have led Missouri’s child welfare investigators to face mounting caseloads, contributing to rapid employee turnover and delayed investigations.

There has been improvement over the last year, DSS spokesperson Chelsea Blair told The Independent. The department is now “on the upswing” with staffing, Blair said.

Children’s Division has also adopted strategies to address overdue cases, Blair said, and “this plan is currently in action and working,” though the agency is still working through nearly 6,000 overdue reports.

Coleman said in an interview last week that the state continues to face a backlog of abuse investigations.

“Missouri is not responding quickly to our hotlines, and I think that’s really inappropriate,” she said. “We want to make sure that kids are safe and get to them quickly.”

Under the bill, the state would be allowed to use contractors to assist with investigations, meaning workers from private companies would help assess a child’s safety after a hotline call.

In practice, Coleman said, the contractors under the bill would do “a lot of administrative functions” to sort through lower-risk hotline reports and help connect families with resources, freeing up state staff to focus on the higher-risk cases.

State workers, she said, would still have the final say in whether a child is removed from the home.

“It’s helping with some of the administrative functions, helping on the front end, to make sure that we’re able to get to credible abuse allegations and to help keep kids safer, faster, because we are not currently,” Coleman said.

Coleman said the bill “doesn’t allow us to offload that as a state. It’s just allowing contractors to be able to assist in the process.”

Clark Peters, an associate professor of social work at the University of Missouri-Columbia whose research specializes in foster care, said he was concerned to learn about the proposal.

“Given the stakes involved for children and families, I would tread very carefully in pursuing privatizing this important activity,” Peters said.

Investigations serve as the entry point into the foster care system for children, Peters added.

“What’s concerning to me is this is a tremendously fraught point in the child welfare system: You’re making a decision whether to investigate and ultimately whether to remove a child,” he said. “It’s the initial few steps that are so critical … So handing this off to private agencies seems really disturbing to me.”

Timely investigations

Coleman started working on this legislation around three years ago, she said, and filed it as a standalone bill for the first time last year.

David Willis, a lobbyist for KVC Missouri, a nonprofit child welfare organization that provides the state with contracted foster care services, has testified in support of Coleman’s efforts. He said during a hearing last year that KVC Missouri had been working with the Department of Social Services “and this specific piece of legislation was kind of the result of those discussions.”

In an email to The Independent, KVC Missouri President Lindsey Stephenson said what prompted the discussion was “the state approaching us about some of the challenges Missouri has experienced in processing all cases of suspected child abuse or neglect in a timely manner.”

KVC, which is a national health system with a network of nonprofits in various states, works in Kentucky to help with investigations as well, Stephenson said, and that didn’t require a change in state law. State investigators in Kentucky make final recommendations based on comprehensive assessments.

Blair said the agency cannot comment on pending legislation. But DSS has been working to address the overdue cases and making progress, she said. There has been an 11% increase in hiring among Children’s Division frontline workers since this time last year and an 8% reduction in turnover.

There are currently 5,942 child abuse and neglect assessments and investigations that have been open 46 days or longer, according to records obtained Wednesday by The Independent through Missouri’s Sunshine Law. The Kansas City region has the most (3,036) followed by St. Louis (2,074). In St. Louis, that’s an improvement from over 7,000 in January, according to reporting from St. Louis Public Radio earlier this year.

“DSS understands the importance of addressing every case of child abuse and neglect promptly and effectively,” Blair said. “By working diligently to close cases where possible, we are not only providing resolution for the children and families affected but also preventing further harm and promoting a safer environment for all.”

There are 36 vacancies as of late last month among the frontline Children’s Division workers, Blair said, which includes investigators, foster care case managers and family centered service workers, who do prevention.


Richard Wexler, who runs the nonprofit National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, a Virginia-based advocacy group, said by email that sometimes privatization can mean state agencies shift blame to contractors — and vice versa.

“There is no reason to think private contractors would be any better, or any worse, than Children’s Division employees per se,” Wexler said. “I do worry, however, that it may add even greater potential for buck passing.”

He added that that is the situation in Florida’s highly-privatized system — where everything except the investigations are privatized and where the state and contractors have pointed fingers at each other. State investigators and sheriffs have also pointed fingers at one another, Wexler said: In Florida, some investigations were, until a legislative change enacted last year, overseen by sheriffs’ offices.

“The other question is whether this further reduces accountability,” Wexler said. “Will investigators for a private contractor have even more ability to hide what they do when things go wrong?”

Coleman said “in the bureaucracy, often we have a lack of accountability anyways, because you have very little oversight,” she said, adding that she was speaking in general, rather than specifically about Children’s Division.

“The state has an ability to be more responsive if a contractor is not meeting their needs, than, you know, trying to have bureaucracies go in and get entrenched people who have been doing these jobs for a long time and are underperforming,” Coleman said.

The bill stipulates that the contractor who handles the investigation can’t be the same one that then takes on managing the foster care case, which Coleman said is designed to avoid misaligned incentives that could cause more kids to be taken into state care.

There are other bills related to children attached to Coleman’s bill now, including a provision to allow the state to grant temporary child care licenses. In the two times it has come up on the Senate floor, debate has largely surrounded amendments, not the substance of the privatized investigations provisions. Coleman referred to the bill as “bipartisan non-controversial provisions” during Senate debate last month.

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.

Annelise Hanshaw covers education for the Missouri Independent — a beat she has held on both the East and West Coast prior to joining the Missouri Independent staff. A born-and-raised Missourian, she is proud to be back in her home state.
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