Due to budget cuts, almost 100 positions within Missouri’s child welfare agency were eliminated in July.
Now Children’s Division employees — both former and current — are speaking out, saying the cuts have reduced support for (often inexperienced and overburdened) frontline workers who then have to make life-altering decisions for Missouri families.
The eliminated positions were primarily supervisors of varying titles, many occupied by people with master’s degrees and years of experience in the field.
In recent months, the News-Leader spoke with two former employees Jason Kirby, a former program development specialist who worked out of the headquarters in Jefferson City, and Crystal Blackwell, a former senior social services support specialist who was with the Greene County Circuit Office.
The News-Leader also spoke to current employees from circuit offices throughout southern Missouri who shared their concerns, but asked their names not be used.
All of the employees and former employees shared a common worry: They say that because so many supervisor positions have been eliminated, the workers who respond to hotline calls and are out in the field conducting child welfare investigations no longer have the necessary support to help them make decisions and work through very complicated situations.
When a Children’s Divisions worker is with a family in crisis and doesn’t have a supervisor to call to discuss the situation, the worker might hastily request to remove the child from the home rather than consider alternatives that could keep the family together, according to those who spoke with the News-Leader. Or the opposite might happen: the worker might feel pressured and rushed and fail to remove a child from a dangerous situation.
Many of these frontline workers have as little as six months experience, they said.
The message circulated publicly by higher-ups at Children’s Division and the Department of Social Services when the cuts were announced was that no frontline workers would be eliminated.
“However, the support to all of them radically changed,” Kirby said, “You are talking about a lot of workers without a lot of experience responding to hotline reports, working with kids who have come into foster care.”
“Our agency along with the team makes really, really life-changing decisions for these people,” Kirby continued. “Maybe the biggest thing this family has ever faced. And you are having a person make this decision and the support they have to make that decision — so they are not just out there on their own — was severely lessened because of (the job cuts).”
Another person still employed by the agency agreed.
“You are making really big, huge safety decisions in the field every time we respond to a hotline,” she said. “It’s imperative that we have contact with some type of supervisor.”
“The positions that were eliminated really do take a toll on the frontline staff,” she added. “The message that was delivered was it would not impede the frontline staff, but that is very inaccurate.”
Lack of transparency, trust
The people who are still employed with Children’s Division said they believe they would be fired for talking to the media.
In recent years, the News-Leader has been granted few, if any, interviews with employees who fall under the Department of Social Services’ umbrella, including Children’s Division.
The News-Leader emailed then-director of Children’s Division David Wood on Sept. 22 to request a phone interview. The following day, Department of Social Services Communications Director Rebecca Woelfel responded in an email saying no one would be available for an interview. Woelfel said she would be happy to assist with any questions.
On Sept. 29, news broke that Wood was no longer with Children’s Division. Joanie Rogers is now serving as interim director.
The News-Leader asked Woelfel if Rogers would be available for an interview. Woelfel said Rogers would not be available, but again she would assist with questions.
“The problem that has happened over the last 20 years specifically, Children’s Division has become very secretive and very guarded and very controlled about its flow of information,” one worker said.
That worker understands the need to protect the privacy of clients, but feels “that reason and justification for privacy has translated to political self-protection where transparency doesn’t happen much at all.”
According to information provided by Woelfel, Missouri Children’s Division has had eight directors (some used the title acting director or interim director) since 2012.
Wood, who served as director for three months this summer, is a former Republican lawmaker who could not run for re-election because of term limits. He told the Jefferson City News Tribune in May that he asked Gov. Mike Parson for the job.
“I know the Children’s Division inside and out,” Wood told the News Tribune. “I’ve spent a lot of time focusing on children. A lot of legislation I’ve passed dealt with children.”
After leaving Children’s Division, Wood spoke to News-Leader reporter Austin Huguelet about his brief time with the agency.
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While Wood wouldn’t say if he was fired or if he chose to resign, he did express appreciation to the governor for giving him the opportunity.
Asked what happened with his job, Wood said, “I’m a better politician than a bureaucrat, maybe.”
“I will say that I signed a resignation letter,” he said.
“I had hoped to make a difference for children in the state of Missouri,” Wood said. “I did find frustration in a lot of bureaucracy to make those changes, and I was somewhat vocal about my frustrations.”
Upon learning that Wood was no longer with the agency, one worker suggested that Wood “was a fall guy.”
Another worker speculated Wood’s removal was a “convenient solution to a difficult problem.”
“The timing of his hiring and the timing of the signing of his resignation letter is convenient,” that worker said, “based on the fact that while he was in office, he was tasked with cutting almost 100 jobs in Children’s Division. I think that, coupled with the fact that he has no experience with child welfare, has no education to back any kind of social service job.”
That worker went on to say that the current deputy directors in Jefferson City have only been in those positions since the start of the year.
She explained that former director David Kurt and his two deputy directors were all removed from office or retired in January 2020, and an entirely new executive team took over.
She expressed frustration that a politician (Wood) with no experience or education in child welfare could simply lobby the governor and be named director of Children’s Division, or that people with no background in child welfare investigations could be hired to lead the division.
“How did Missouri get here? I think that is a huge piece of the problem,” she said. “What is going to keep that from happening again? How can an entire executive team get replaced for a division in Missouri with little to no accountability from anybody?”
“It’s not OK,” she added. “I think it speaks for the bigger problem we are dealing with which is lack of stability at Children’s Division. How are we to have good quality workers who see a career in this really important and hard work — how are we to see that through when we don’t have stability from the top and we don’t have our top executive team filled with people who understand this work?”
Another worker attempted to answer her questions: “Because our agency is a political tool for keeping people in power and that is why it’s full of secrecy and constantly changing policies.”
The workers who spoke with the News-Leader said they view themselves as whistleblowers, but fear they don’t have whistleblower protection. They believe there will likely be a witch hunt from folks in Jefferson City who might put pressure on the circuit offices to find out who spoke to the media.
“We are worried about our jobs,” one worker said.
One worker commented that it was risky for the group to talk to the media, even knowing their names would not be used. Still, she felt a duty to speak out.
“There’s no way I can just sit back and let this continue because it will never get better unless we say something about it,” that worker said. “The conditions that people are forced to work under right now, I don’t know how it serves kids in Missouri. So if I’m not standing up for that, then do I really care about children in Missouri?”
“We do a public service for our state and it’s mismanaged,” one worker said. “People should be mad about that in my opinion.”
Greene County positions eliminated
Blackwell, who was with the Greene County office, said she believes most of the people whose positions were eliminated were offered other jobs within state agencies — all demotions and pay cuts. Many would have required moving or long commutes.
If they didn’t take the demotion, they were told they would not be eligible for unemployment. Blackwell chose to walk away after nearly 20 years as a state employee and eight years with Children’s Division.
She said her reason for speaking out about the cuts is not because she is upset about losing a job that she loved.
“I don’t ever want to see Children’s Division take a hit like that again,” she said. “I know there was some stuff with tourism in the budget. I don’t know where the money is going, but (Children’s Division funding) is literally the safety of kids. And that seems like it would be a big priority to me.”
“No more cuts can be made to this division,” Blackwell said. “I don’t see how the people that are still there could possibly physically continue to do the job.”
Blackwell drew a diagram that explained the hierarchy of positions at the Greene County office. She crossed out the positions that were eliminated.
“These people give instruction to frontline staff,” she said pointing to the crossed-out positions. “(They) give much-needed resources, much-needed direction. It’s a very difficult job. They are available all the time. Not having that many people to pick up the phone to call really concerns me for the welfare of kids in Greene County.”
Blackwell explained that in Greene County and at circuit offices throughout the state, there must be three people on call at all times: a worker, a supervisor and a master’s degree-level consultant.
“When three people are on call, if you take six of those people (as was the case in Greene County) out of the supervisor rotation,” she said, “that is going to be significant.”
“It’s an endless job and I really worry about my peers that are still there trying to manage,” Blackwell said. “The work didn’t go anywhere. The number of children needing to be seen did not go anywhere. These are things that will never go away.”
Blackwell went on to describe the number of meetings and court hearings supervisors have to be in throughout the workweek. It’s not unusual for a worker in the field to not be able to get their immediate supervisor on the phone when they are dealing with a crisis child welfare situation, she said. When that happens, the workers call other supervisors for help.
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“I would take calls. My co-specialists would take calls,” she said. “We just all kind of know that if your phone is ringing, you need to answer it. Someone needs an answer.”
‘”These are very heated situations that we are asking people to go into. And it’s a really heavy responsibility,” Blackwell said, “just knowing that you have these people to call and knowing that they’ve probably experienced something like that or they can help you figure out a way to remedy the situation. It’s so much knowledge that isn’t available anymore.”
According to Blackwell, six positions within Greene County’s leadership team were cut: two specialists, two program managers and two supervisors.
Combined, those employees had 98 years experience in Children’s Division.
That leaves the rest of the workers with one specialist and the circuit manager (the head of the office) to call if they have questions or problems and their immediate supervisor is unavailable.
According to the letter (provided by Woelfel and dated July 14) from then-director Wood to the DSS human resource director, Children’s Division abolished 96 positions statewide because of a “budget shortfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The employees and former employees who spoke to the News-Leader feel these positions were eliminated by higher-ups who don’t understand how important it is for inexperienced frontline workers to have supervisors to call to help sort out problems, give advice and perhaps have remedies that could help keep families together safely.
“If you are going to make a big structural organizational change like this, you’ve really got to do a lot of communicating and planning and understand all the pieces and how they fit together,” Kirby said. “From my observation, there’s no way this was planned out well. There’s no way that the people making these decisions understood the impact of what they were doing and could foresee and plan for those cascading changes.”
Dan Haug, the governor’s budget director, told the News-Leader in June that about 300 state employees would be laid off, with more than 200 in the Department of Social Services.
“We’re looking at sort of a restructuring in the Children’s Division,” Haug said in June. “We feel like we can do that without increasing caseloads for the frontline workers. …
“We’re hoping to do this in a way that doesn’t affect any of the people being served,” Haug said.
One lawmaker wants answers
House Minority Leader Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said she first learned of the cuts in a memo from the Department of Social Services.
Shortly after, Quade said she began hearing from Children’s Divisions workers from circuit offices throughout the state.
“Many of them know I was a social worker before being in the legislature,” she said. “I had a slew of workers reach out to me and just say, ‘Did you hear this was happening?’ That is how my involvement began.”
Quade said she was invited to be part of a Zoom call with about 15 different workers, some still employed and some who had left the department. Some of those workers are from Quade’s district.
“We spent an hour and a half just hearing from them in terms of the timeline of how this all came about, what their fears were,” Quade said, “on both the care of the children and potential neglect due to these changes, but then also the treatment of the employees and how this was all handled. (We) want to ensure that doesn’t happen again.”
In Quade’s view, it’s not just the loss of supervisor positions that will have a negative effect on the agency. It’s the loss of years of experience in the field of child welfare.
“The experience that comes with things like knowing to park your car with the front tires facing out of the driveway so if you need to leave quickly, you don’t have to reverse,” Quade said. “Those are not things you learn at school. Those are things you learn in the field.”
Quade worries the elimination of so many positions is putting a serious strain on the remaining employees.
“When there are less people doing the work and more children in your care, larger caseloads, you are just thinking very emergent situations with those kiddos,” she said. “There is going to be much more likelihood that those kids get taken into care instead of having the supervisor, who has more time and knowledge of working with those individual families, to create a holistic plan for them so they can keep the kids with the family.
“Studies show that when you keep the kids at home and develop a plan to break these cycles, then not only is it going to save us money — to be very crass — but it’s better for the children.”
Quade said she wants to know how long the plans to eliminate the positions were in place, and specifically whether discussions were happening before the pandemic and budget shortfall. She said she also wants to know what the long-term goals are for Children’s Division.
Because of the pandemic, children have been at higher risk because they have been at home all of the time and away from teachers who are mandated reporters, Quade said.
“What is scary for me is, in a time when it’s already more difficult to find these kids and to help them, now we are cutting resources to that very department and making it even harder on people,” Quade said. “Now their caseloads are going to increase. We have a lack of experience. Of all places to cut, I feel this is a really short-sighted way to do it.”
“If we don’t have these workers checking in and having these in-depth conversations with these families, it’s just going to mean more kids in care for longer,” she said. “That is the exact opposite of where we should be.”
Quade filed a Sunshine Law request in August with the Department of Social Services asking for records pertaining to meetings, discussions and decisions concerning the funding of and budget for Children’s Division, as well as the Division of Youth Services.
She is also requesting records related to plans to eliminate jobs and positions and records pertaining to the restructuring of the two agencies. Quade requested records pertaining to caseload analyses statewide from August of 2019 to August of 2020.
Quade’s records request has not yet been filled.
“We definitely want to get some answers on this one,” she said.
In an attempt to get a more narrow and localized look at the number of cases workers carry and the job turnover rate, the News-Leader submitted a Sunshine request in late August for the Greene County office’s caseload analyses for the past five years. Caseload analyses are computer spreadsheets that each circuit uses to report the number of cases and staff it has per month.
The News-Leader’s records request also has not yet been filled.
Remaining staff ‘stretched so thin’
Since so many supervisors’ positions were eliminated, those remaining have more workers to oversee. One worker said her supervisor has made it clear workers need to try to figure out their own answers.
“The type of support is not there and it’s not thorough,” she said. “That is what makes me nervous.”
One reason supervisors are often not available to answer calls from frontline workers is that they are obligated to be in so many meetings, according to employees who spoke to the News-Leader. For example, Greene County is among the 40 circuits doing a pilot program called Team Decision Making (TDM), which is an evidence-based practice from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Every time a child is taken out of a home or “changes pillows,” there must be a TDM meeting as soon as possible.
One worker described TDM meetings as “a program where we get the family at a table and treat them as experts and figure out how we can keep the family together and keep the kids safe all at the same time.”
“It’s an amazing program,” the worker said. “And it’s relatively cheap compared to some of the other programs we’ve got.”
However, TDM meetings can be an hour and a half long. If there’s any indication of domestic violence in the home, the mother and father have separate meetings. That means three hours of the supervisor’s day could be spent in TDM meetings.
Prior to the cuts, if a worker’s supervisor was tied up in TDM meetings that worker could call other supervisors from their circuit.
The workers are worried the TDM meetings might be eliminated because of the staff cuts. They agreed Team Decision Making is an “incredibly beneficial program.”
“It’s an evidence-based practice that is proven to work,” one worker said, adding she worried it will be replaced with a “check box practice that does not keep children safe and does not keep families intact in a safe way.”
One person who supervises frontline workers said there’s almost no time to talk with workers about their cases, meaning only emergency situations are addressed.
“If you are only dealing with emergencies, guess what you are not doing? Getting kids home,” that person said. “Removal is traumatic for children. Children’s Division should be opposing removal of children unless absolutely necessary. If we are understaffed, then we will not be able to do our work in a proper manner to oppose removing children from homes that we could preserve. We need time to gather evidence on family functioning to present to court.”
That same person said supervisors no longer have time to spend with workers in the field, helping them learn and grow professionally.
“Supervisors who were only supervising five people are now supervising seven to eight people,” another person said. “Workers are getting less supervision, less direction, less guidance. … The frontline workers in child welfare are always workers who have the least amount of experience, need the most guidance, have the most passion and need someone to kind of guide them to build them up to be a great worker.”
One of the employees who asked her name not be used said it’s a problem that she sees already happening. On a recent day, she said she was speaking to a worker about something very general.
“And she ends up crying to me,” she recalled of the conversation. “And she is like, ‘I can’t do this. I feel like I’m so stressed out and I don’t know who to turn to. All I have is my supervisor and she’s busy. And there’s so much to learn and I can’t possibly do all this.'”
That employee described that worker as someone who has the potential to become a wonderful caseworker who “thinks things through” and “wants to do such a good job.” That employee said she worries the woman is going to quit.
The other workers said they are hearing similar talk from frontline workers.
“Our workers feel discouraged and they feel like they don’t have the support they had before,” one said. “I’ve heard many of them say something like, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t know how I can continue in this work.'”
A job that’s become a ‘nightmare’
The workers said policies were already changing within the agency, going back to the “check the box” social worker from the past.
“The guidelines and policies and forms that are coming back are things that we eliminated years ago because they didn’t work,” one worker said. “Those forms are yes or no type questions and don’t drive critical thinking that allows us to keep families together.”
They said they worry the public might not see a problem with the agency shifting to procedures that lead to more kids being removed from the home.
“But people just don’t understand the trauma and the emotional harm that causes to kids,” one worker said. “And in the long run, these are the kids that end up in prison, homeless. It’s not always the best outcome.”
Kirby called it a “radical shift” for the agency.
About three years ago Missouri’s Children Division was being featured in child welfare magazines for its practice models that were “the cutting edge of child welfare” focused on keeping families together.
“Now it’s a complete 180 from that,” Kirby said.
One worker described having to fill out forms to document a child’s safety was assured, but said the “check box” forms are intended to shield the state agency from lawsuits and don’t actually do anything to protect children.
That worker said the growing amount of job expectations is a “nightmare and it doesn’t contribute to the well-being of children or family. It contributes to the culture of protecting Children’s Division from lawsuits, protecting Children’s Division from scrutiny.”
One worker mentioned being bothered that most of the news stories about the agency “turn into anti-child welfare.”
“We get a lot of hostility in the community that we really can’t share. We can’t share when people are stalking us. We can’t share when people slash our tires,” the worker said. “We can’t share when we have people drive by our house at night. We can’t share that. It’s a story you’ll never hear.”
“We do this job because it’s important, not because it’s easy or even always rewarding,” one worker said. “It’s a really hard job. But we do it because we are committed to it.”
‘These are the kids who end up homeless’
The workers and former employees cautioned against drawing conclusions based on the number of kids coming into foster care in recent months. They pointed out that schools were closed for several months, but have re-opened. Kids are around teachers and school nurses again — people who are mandated to report suspected abuse.
And while putting kids in foster care is sometimes a necessary move, it’s not always what’s best.
“Research shows that kids have really negative outcomes when they are in custody, even compared to kids who have been maltreated and stay in their homes,” one worker said. “These are kids who end up homeless and they end up using drugs. The amount of parents I have removed (children) from who were in the foster system themselves is astronomical.”
“It is unbelievably traumatic to remove a child from the home. It’s traumatic to the parents,” that worker said. “To try to then repair that damage — we just see over and over again that trauma leads to a lot of unhealthy things you don’t want to see in society.”
Blackwell said it’s important to note that there are some truly wonderful foster parents and foster care is helpful in a lot of situations. But it’s also important to note that when a child is removed from the home, they are being removed from their school, their friends, their grandparents and their pets. It is possible they won’t be able to stay with their siblings.
“Up until the point of removal, we as workers have no idea where we are taking them,” Blackwell said. “So when they ask you, ‘Where am I going?’, you legitimately don’t know.”
“And all of those things,” she continued, “are crushing down on a brand new six-months-in-the-job worker. … If (a supervisor) doesn’t answer the phone, it’s not like they are asking you if they can take off 30 minutes early.
“They are asking if they can walk out the front door with the child.”
— News-Leader reporter Austin Huguelet contributed to this report.