‘Strengthening Missouri Families Act’ Will Hurt Families Despite Governor’s Veto

Governor Jay Nixon discussing veto among supporters
Governor Jay Nixon discussing his veto among supporters, notably including children.

“A Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge is taking a personal approach to deal with the state crisis of finding homes for kids who go through the juvenile court system and need a foster family,” a news report from KPLR in St. Louis explains.

“Judge Darrell Missey says often times a juvenile who appears before him will be placed with a foster family in another part of the state because of the lack of foster families closer to the child’s home.”

The report continues on to explain that the judge is starting a campaign to bring awareness to the problem by speaking at churches and civic groups.1

It’s a story that advocates have heard time and again; too many children are in need of foster homes. Too many children are shipped too far away from their families, their neighborhoods, and their schools. Too many children are delivered to the homes of complete strangers, and told that this is to be their new home. That familiar narrative is invariably followed by the plea.

The plea first goes out to the entire community. Then, the plea more specifically targets civic groups, followed by the churches.

If love isn’t enough to motivate these people to open up their homes and hearts to all of these children in need, perhaps the money will pry open their doors. The state will, after all is said and done, pay people who are complete strangers to these children to care for them. If individual homes can’t be found for them, the state will pay hundreds – and in some cases thousands of dollars per month – to care for them in a group home.

The state, however, won’t give their natural parents so much as a thin dime to prevent the removal of these children from their homes. That money only goes out to strangers who are far more “deserving” of that privilege.

This is nothing new. Over 20 years ago, a northeastern legal aid service issued a report that explained:

Despite federal and state laws and policies requiring the state to provide services to preserve families, in many cases the state fails to provide families the services they need in order to remain together. While cash or rental assistance might avert the need of costly foster care placement, generally the state claims it has no money in its budget for such payments. Families in need of intensive Family Preservation Services may be placed on a long waiting list and separated before help arrives. Families needing substance abuse treatment are usually referred to agencies with extensive waiting lists that cannot provide timely assistance. Overburdened case workers cannot give families the support and help they need to get into treatment programs. In too many situations, only foster care is offered as a solution.2

What is new is that while foster care placement rates nationwide have generally been on the decline, two states in particular – Missouri and Kansas – are heading in the wrong direction. Both states are experiencing sharp increases in foster care placements.3

As a recent editorial in the Kansas City Star explains it:

Nationwide, foster care caseloads have leveled off. Federal data shows 402,000 children in state custody in July 2014. That’s about 108,000 fewer cases than a decade earlier; numbers moved steadily down from 2003 to 2012 before jumping slightly last year.
But Missouri and Kansas have been speeding in the wrong direction.
Missouri reported record highs in January and February of this year of more than 13,000 children who had been removed from their parents’ care and placed in foster care, with relatives or in other settings.
Kansas had an all-time high of 6,507 children in out-of-home placements in April. In Johnson County, the numbers have grown so rapidly that the district court added a second judge to handle cases involving abused and neglected children.4

The Kansas City Star may be credited with remembering that the five rules of good reporting include: who, what, when, where, and, most importantly, why the news event occurred as it did.

Clearly, when two differing states – with two differing departments of social services, and two differing legislatures – experience such stark similarities of events, searching for commonalities between the two only makes sense. The editorialist offers three quite striking commonalities.

  1. Missouri has chronically ranked among the bottom of the states in its investment in child care, substance abuse and mental health treatment and cash assistance to families. Kansas, after choosing tax cuts for wealthier residents over adequate funding for state services, is headed in that direction.
  2. Neither state has expanded Medicaid eligibility, which would help families with access to mental health care and fewer health and financial worries.
  3. And conservative legislatures in both states chose to make it harder for the poorest families to obtain cash welfare benefits. Lawmakers said they were helping parents escape dependency by imposing stricter work requirements. But child advocates believe increased stress and demands will put more children in danger.

The editorial concludes that, “The best course of action is to keep children out of protective court custody in the first place. For that, we need a change of heart, mind and leadership in Jefferson City and Topeka.”

In my previous writing, I’d covered Kansas’ draconian cuts to the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, which, while described by the Governor as amounting to a mere “pittance,” nevertheless managed by some miracle to enabled TANF recipients to go on luxury cruises, to tattoo parlors, and to expensive sporting events.5

The governor’s veto

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has, throughout his tenure, maintained strict fiscal discipline, his web site explains.

Nevertheless, he would appear to be a man with both a conscience and compassion, as he reportedly vetoed legislation that landed on his desk earlier this year, only to have his veto overridden by the legislature on May 5th. The legislation in question was Senate Bill 24.6

The bill provides new meaning to the concept of “policing the poor,” as it mandates that caseworkers from the department of social services pay visits to TANF recipients’ homes to ensure that they are conforming to strict requirements now attached to the program. Specifically, as the bill itself explains it:

This act requires the Department of Social Services to conduct an investigation and determine if a person is cooperating with a work activity requirement under the TANF program. If the person is non-compliant, a representative of the Department shall conduct a face-to-face meeting and explain the potential sanction of TANF benefits, as well as the requirements to cure such a sanction. The TANF recipient shall then have 6 weeks to comply with the work activity requirement, during which time no sanction of benefits shall occur. Failure to comply with the requirements within the 6 week period will result in a sanction consisting of a 50% reduction of benefits for a maximum of ten weeks. During that period of sanctions, the person shall remain on the caseload in sanction status and the Department will attempt to meet face-to-face to explain the sanction and the requirements to cure the sanction.

Suddenly, all of those “overworked” caseworkers – the ones who never seem to find the time to visit a truly endangered child before she “falls through the cracks” while under the watchful eye of the system – have all the time in the world.

Even as the calls pour into the child abuse hotline, the caseworkers have time to visit a TANF household just to make sure that the recipients are dutifully engaged in work-related activities for a minimum of 30 hours per week. Presumably, the caseworkers are required to ask for some evidence of that activity, be it a written log, a slip from a church as a receipt for community service, or some other such thing.7

Much to his credit, on April 30, 2015, Governor Nixon’s office issued a press release announcing that he had “joined advocates for children and families at Operation Breakthrough in Kansas City to announce his veto of Senate Bill 24, which would hurt needy children. The bill would remove an estimated 6,400 poor children from public assistance, including more than 2,600 children under the age of five.”

During his speech in Kansas City, the Governor said, “Children already suffer lifelong consequences from poverty; penalizing them further for their parents’ behavior is mean-spirited and just plain wrong. When it comes to adults, we can all agree on the need for personal esponsibility, but these are children. I don’t sign bills that hurt kids – period.”

He continued on to explain, “There are ways that the legislature could ensure that parents are held accountable for their decisions while at the same time protecting kids — for example, by providing benefits through a responsible guardian. But again, legislators left children unprotected. They say they’re trying to crack down on adults, but they’ve made kids the collateral damage.”

His speech was met with a round of applause.

According to the release, the legislation was opposed by Empower Missouri, the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, Operation Breakthrough, the Missouri Association for Community Action, Missouri Faith Voices, Child Care Aware of Missouri, the American Academy of Pediatrics-Missouri Chapter, the Missouri Children’s Leadership Council, Paraquad and other groups representing children and families across Missouri.8

following the money

“The Fiscal Year 2016 budget provides $8.8 billion for the Department of Social Services,” explains a financial summary of the DSS budget and expenditures. That’s quite a chunk of change for an agency that is about to shed even the barest pretext of being a “helping organization.” The question begging to be asked is: what exactly is an agency entrusted with an $8.8 billion budget supposed to be doing with all of that money?

Missouri’s department of social services has its own sophisticated revenue maximization schemes, such as its “Children’s Income Disbursement System,” described in its Child Welfare Manual with precision concerning the manner with which foster children’s funds are to be managed, and how after five years they wind up in the General Treasury if they are left unclaimed. (There is precious little evidence of a search to locate family members who may be rightfully entitled to claim that money on behalf of the child that is as diligent as that of the search for any comparatively meager TANF violations).

I’d described in some detail in a previous article how Missouri uses its Child Support Enforcement Collections Fund to support its Director’s Office, its Mail Center Consolidation, its department of Finance and Administrative Services, its General Services department, as well as its Legal Services division.

While that certainly sheds light on how the agency perpetuates its own bureaucratic expansion and survival, that certainly doesn’t appear to be leaving anything left for the children the state is claiming to be gathering the support for.

Child support isn’t the only revenue maximization gimmick employed by the state. Jessica Bock of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did an excellent job of reporting on the state of Missouri having overbilled the federal government to the tune of $20.5 million for “administrative costs” billed to Medicaid for school-related programs. So, too, did Dave Ranney of the Lawrence Journal-World report on Kansas agreeing to return $32 million after federal auditors discovered the same scheme in use there. Both states had paid for the expertise of MAXIMUS, Inc., at the time a private revenue maximization contractor that provided such work for various states on a fee-contingent basis.9

Other similarities

Kansas and Missouri share some other remarkable parallels as well. Kansas was the subject of a lawsuit involving its foster care system even prior to its privatization effort, and the state struggled for many years without managing to approach a reasonable level of compliance with the terms of its settlement agreement.10

A 1981 study Missouri study found that 57 percent of the sample children were placed in foster care settings that put them “at the very least at a high risk of abuse or neglect.”11

A later report issued in 1987 found that 25 percent of the children in the Missouri sample group had been victims of “abuse or inappropriate punishment.” Children’s Rights Project attorney Marcia Robinson Lowry described the findings of the Missouri review before the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families:

The most troubling result of the Kansas City review was the level of abuse, undetected or unreported, in foster homes. 25% of the children in the sample were the subject of abuse or inappropriate punishment. 88% of those reports were not properly investigated.12

You see, these two states do indeed share many remarkable similarities, spanning some decades of time. All one has to do to find them is follow the right trail. Always follow the money. That’s the only true roadmap to your destination. And, with respect to Kansas and Missouri, one may well economize on the journey by using much the same map.


further reading

Missouri 2015 TANF State Plan (Does not incorporate recent legislative changes).

Diane Bast, Matthew Glans, Logan Pike and Gary MacDougal. 2015 Welfare Reform Report Card. The Heartland Institute. (March 19, 2015). The document from the conservative “think tank” that reportedly started it all by ranking Missouri 50th among the states for its efforts at welfare reform.

TANF and SNAP reform on the way to approval by General Assembly,” The Missouri times, (March 19, 2015).

Editorial, “The Missouri-Kansas border war on slamming the poor,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, (July 07, 2015).

Virginia Young, “Senate moves to enact welfare bill over veto,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, (May 04, 2015).

Virginia Young, “Missouri Legislature enacts limit on welfare benefits over Nixon’s veto,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, (May 05, 2015).


references

1. KPLR Channel 11, St. Louis. “Judge explains lack of foster care in Missouri,” (November 2, 2015).

2. Goldhill, N. Families at risk: The need for foster care reform. Legal Services of New Jersey. (1994).

3. By no means am I suggesting that these are the only problematic states. Removals in Arizona have skyrocketed, with one out of every 100 children in that state in foster care, and a well-deserved lawsuit on its hands. Florida is currently experiencing yet another tremendous rise in placements, for reasons best explained by Richard Wexler at the NCCPR. Kentucky is currently playing host to an FBI investigation into rampant corruption, although its child welfare agency has yet to be announced as a target of the investigation. What is unique about Kansas and Missouri at this point in time is that both states are experiencing similar increases, and for much the same reason.

4. Editorial, “Volunteers needed to help endangered kids after record caseload increases in Missouri, Kansas,” Kansas City Star, (June 2, 2015). (The reasons set forth in the editorial were not enumerated in the original as they are here).

5. My family’s monthly income for a household of two exceeds the highest TANF allowance for a family of four in Kansas. I would be willing to express tremendous gratitude to Governor Brownback of Kansas if he would reveal to me the elusive secret of being able to afford a luxury cruise on my income level.

6. Natalia Alamdari, “Abused and impoverished: Domestic abuse survivors vexed by new welfare limitations,” The Missourian, (November 3, 2015).

7. One can only speculate as to how or whether compliance will be determined prior to the required face-to-face visit. If it works anything like the typical CPS triage system, a number of recipients will likely be “screened out” by virtue of sounding credible over the telephone. In any event, investigating all TANF recipients in this manner is certain to be time consuming, and it is highly probable that it will cost more in real dollars to enforce this effort than it will save, as the TANF payments are so low. What is effectively being held in the balance is the lives of children on the one hand, and the potential savings of $200 – $400 of monthly income denied to a “non-compliant” recipient. This is not to be taken as an indication that I believe for a moment that caseworker investigations involving abuse or neglect allegations actually save lives, as to this day there remains a complete absence of evidence to support that claim. What is clear, however, is that child removals are highly correlated with a family’s economic circumstances, as well as their housing conditions, neighborhood, and their race. These factors taken together with the addition of caseworkers knocking on doors for purposes of policing TANF compliance, is a recipe for increased child removals.

8. Office of Governor Jay Nixon. “Nixon vetoes legislation that would hurt needy children,” press release, April 30, 2015. See also Governor Nixon’s Veto speech, and the transcript of the Governor’s remarks.

9. Jessica Bock, “Missouri’s billing of Medicaid is disputed,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, (March 27, 2010). Dave Ranney, “Firm’s Medicaid advice may backfire for state,” Lawrence Journal-World, (August 28, 2006). See also Hatcher, Daniel L. “Child Support Harming Children: Subordinating the Best Interests of Children to the Fiscal Interests of the State.” Wake Forest Law Review 42, no. 4 (2007). See also US Department of Justice, “Virginia Company Enters into Deferred Prosecution Agreement & Agrees to Pay $30.5 Million,” press release, July 23, 2007. (Describing a settlement and a criminal deferred prosecution agreement with MAXIMUS involving Medicaid billings for services to foster care children “whether or not services had in fact been provided to those children”).

10. Kansas Division of Post Audit, Verifying Information Provided by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services On Its Compliance with the Terms of the Foster Care Lawsuit Settlement Agreement–Monitoring Report #1 (1994); Verifying Information Provided by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services on its Compliance with the Terms of the Foster Care Lawsuit Settlement Agreement Monitoring Report #5 (1997); Verifying Information Provided by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services on its Compliance With the Terms of the Foster Care Lawsuit Settlement Agreement, Monitoring Report #9 (1998) (Finding that department inappropriately screened out reports, department failed to enter names of any providers who had abused children into its registry, department was out of compliance with agreed upon training requirements, department failed to maintain two critical computer systems to track foster care cases, several other previously agreed to terms were dropped as simply being impossible to enforce). Verifying Information Provided by the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services on Its Compliance With the Terms of the Foster Care Lawsuit Settlement Agreement: Monitoring Report #14 (2001) (SRS did not meet any of 6 requirements concerning investigations; SRS complied with only 6 of 14 case management requirements; SRS entered only 4 of 14 confirmed incidents of abuse by providers into its registry; SRS not in compliance with 3 training requirements; SRS not in compliance with 2 foster care information requirements).

11. David Kaplovitz and Louis Genevie, Foster Children in Jackson County, Missouri: A Statistical Analysis of Files Maintained by the Division of Family Services, (1981).

12. Written Statement of Marcia Robinson Lowry, Foster Care, Child Welfare, and Adoption Reforms, Joint Hearings before the Subcommittee on Public Assistance and Unemployment Compensation of the Committee on Ways and Means and the Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, U.S. House of Representatives, April 13 and 28, May 12, 1988.