The new director of the Missouri Children’s Division says due to severe staffing shortages, the division is “treading water” and it is doing its best to “stem the bleeding.”

During a legislative committee hearing today, Director Darrell Missey said the division, which handles foster care cases, has 237 job vacancies. He cited one worker handling 38 cases – way more than the accreditation standard of 15 cases each.

The Missouri Capitol in Jefferson City

“She’s just hanging on wanting to continue to work for us and says, ‘I don’t know how I get to stay because I can’t really take care of these people because I have 38 cases.’ She’s not the highest I’ve heard,” said Missey. “She’s just the one who was crying with me this week – and that impacts the kids.”

Missouri has more than 14,000 children in foster care.

“How is having 38 cases, for example, what happens to those kids? What happens to those families? How do they then go through a system that isn’t able to support them,” asked Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur.

“We’re doing the bare minimum for them when that happens,” said Missey. “We’re doing what’s required by the law. We’re seeing them. We’re showing up at hearings we’re showing up, but there’s certainly a person who’s in that situation doesn’t have time to do the things that I’ve seen great caseworkers do.”

The current caseworker turnover rate is 31% and is projected to rise to 37%. In Kansas City, it is 88%.

“One of the things I’ve been encouraging people to do is to follow their calling – to help people. But what I recognize is that they’re drowning themselves and to help them we’ve got to get more people for them,” he said.

Missey said the division’s starting pay is nearly $35,000 – about $10,000 lower than neighboring Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois.

State Representative Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, is a former case worker. She said boosting pay is key.

“We can’t get clinical social workers to do this work at that pay for that type of work. Nobody does it for the pay to be really, really clear. Nobody does it for the pay,” said Ingle. “But when you can easily step aside and go work at a hospital, or work at a different kind of agency, and immediately make $25,000 to $30,000 more with a master’s degree, why would you? Why would you stay on a sinking ship? We’ve got to figure out a way and yes, I do think that pay is obviously an answer, especially when you’re talking about recruitment.”

The division is also dealing with major reductions in the job application rate.

She said employees are constantly thinking about the families they serve and are living in a continuous state of fear.

“Because you were one person, and there’s no one there to save you and help you because they’re all drowning too. And so, you live in this state of fear that something horrible is going to happen to one of your families, and you’re going to be responsible for it because you were unable to help them and it was your duty,” she said.

A mobile app designed to streamline communication between Missouri Children’s Division caseworkers and families is in the works. Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder, R-Scott City, the chair of the committee, said the $1 million effort should be a priority.

“I feel that this will also help with the shortage, of course, and that overload. We run our state like slum lords and I apologize for that. I apologize that our workers can’t sleep at night because I know what those cases look like. Firsthand experience, I know. And we’ve got to get better,” said Thompson Rehder.

Missey, who came on board in recent months, spent 20 years as a family court judge in eastern Missouri’s Jefferson County. He’s the Children’s Division’s ninth director over the past ten years.

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