An advocate for child abuse victims says the budget restrictions made last week by the governor could hurt children.
Of the $115.5-million Governor Jay Nixon (D) has frozen the spending of, $408-thousand would hire ten more child abuse caseworkers. Emily van Schenkhof with Missouri KidsFirst says after the responsibilities of the state Children’s Division were expanded last year to include assessing reports of child-on-child sexual abuse, these caseworkers were badly needed.
“We were flooded with calls as soon as we got this because we knew it was a big problem, but even the number of hotline calls the Children’s Division got as soon as we changed the law – it surprised everyone, and so the caseloads for children’s division skyrocketed,” said van Schenkhof.
She said the national standard for one worker’s caseload is 15 a month, but some have had as many as 45 cases a month. Five caseworkers were assigned to handle the new case responsibilities last year, and van Schenkhof says they all had full caseloads within weeks. Each case must be assessed in 45 days.
“They desperately need more staffing,” said van Schenkhof. “I really am concerned about the safety of children in Missouri when we overburden and overwork our Children’s Division staff, and this was meant to be relief for them so that they could do their job at the level that we need them to.”
Van Schenkhof and other advocates were glad to see the state make that change in statute last year to begin assessing cases of children abusing children.
“About 25-percent of sexual abuse of children is perpetrated by other juveniles on children, and we believe that by interrupting these behaviors early on we can prevent a lot of child sexual abuse,” said van Schenkhof.
She said she worries about the message being sent to caseworkers.
“When the General Assembly works and Missouri KidsFirst and advocates all over the state work to try to ease their burden saying, ‘Your work is valuable. We value what you do,’ and then these restrictions come across and sort of say, ‘Maybe it’s not a priority to make your workload manageable,'” said van Schenkhof.
She said she’s “frustrated” that the $408-thousand couldn’t have come from some other program or programs in the $27.2-billion dollar state budget.
“I respect everyone who’s involved in the process and I respect the governor, and I understand it’s tough to work on the budget and these are not easy decisions that the administration makes, but I’m close to begging,” said van Schenkhof. “I really want this money released because I believe that it’s so critical to the safety of our children.”
The Nixon administration said, and at least one Republican budget leader agreed, that the budget restrictions were necessary because state revenue is coming in slowly. Nixon’s State Budget Director Dan Haug said it is unlikely any restricted money would be released until at least September.