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Report recommends higher salaries and lower case loads for DFS workers

March 31, 2003
By: Sara Bondioli
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Higher salaries and a lower case load for child welfare workers were among the recommendations cited Monday in a draft report from the Supreme Court Commission on Children's Justice.

The report includes recommendations from the committee's four work groups.

"I think we've come up with some positive steps to improve outcomes for kids and families and to increase accountability," said Judge Thomas Frawley, a commission member and judge in the St. Louis City Judicial Circuit.

The full commission will develop suggestions from each work group's recommendations. These will be included in the commission's final report to be released June 13.

The work group on prevention recommended a standardized decision process for child removal in all counties. Increased training for Division of Family Services workers was also suggested. The group also said it wants DFS to be accredited within five years. To qualify, DFS would have to reduce the case loads of workers.

A number of recommendations, such as higher salaries and lower case loads for workers, would cost money. House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-St. Louis County and a member of the commission, said she knows funding is tight with this year's budget.

"Hopefully, what we will be able to do is shift some resources around," she said.

The judicial work group's recommendations included a meeting of all involved parties, including parents, within three business days of a court's protective custody order.

Hanaway served on the judicial work group and said these meetings, or status conferences, were the most important recommendation from her work group because they address the removal of children from their homes as well as the placement of children in foster homes.

Frawley, chairman of the judicial work group, said the status conferences would differ from current communication between judges and lawyers. The new conferences would include additional parties in the discussion and work toward specific goals for the meeting.

The judicial work group would also like to test the use of open hearings in cases of child abuse and neglect with a two-year pilot project in the city of St. Louis and a few counties.

In regard to the state's child abuse hotline, the work group recommended consistent guidelines for deciding the proper response to each call. It also supported a system separate from the hotline for referrals in cases less severe than those investigated by the hotline, such as reports of children living with lice or in a dirty home.

Recommendations on permanency and best practices include implementing team decision making to avoid placement in foster care when possible, increasing background screening of prospective foster parents and expanding privatization in the state.

After the commission's meeting Monday, a group gathered in front of the Missouri Supreme Court. About 12 protesters carried signs and said they had been denied the right to speak in front of the commission.

Sydney James, father of 2-year-old Dominic who died in foster care, carried a sign reading "Dominic James: Never again!!!"

"The only ones who spoke about this was the ones inside the box," James said. "None of those who were actually abused by the system were allowed to speak."

Robert James Olson, president of City of Faith Ministries, said he spoke for about five minutes before the commission, but its members were disinterested in his comments. He said the commission had decided on its basic conclusions at its first meeting and isn't interested in new points of view.

"They're going to come up with a validation report without any significant changes and there will be another Dominic James," Olson said.

Gary Waint, of the commission's staff, said he had given alternative dates for the individuals from the group Whose Children Are They? to speak, but they had not accepted them.

"We just didn't have time on the agenda to include them today," he said.