A roundtable discussion took place last week where public concerns were voiced to state officials from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services/Children’s Services and the juvenile court system.
Present at the meeting were local foster parents, attorneys, and family advocacy group representatives.
The gathering took place in a conference room at Liberty Office Park last Thursday and was organized by Rep. Dale Wright, R-Farmington, after he was contacted by several concerned citizens and local attorneys regarding issues they were having with the Children’s Division and the juvenile court system.
Wright said that just in the span of about a month, he was contacted by enough people concerned with the same issues that he decided to try and bring the concerned parties together and find out what issues were at hand.
The first call Wright received pertained to a situation in which a woman had two children with her husband but she had reportedly found out that her husband had been sexually assaulting their young daughter.
The woman said she filed for divorce, however, her husband managed to convince the court that his wife was unfit to care for their children and he was awarded custody of the children, despite the sexual assault allegations.
Wright said the woman told him that since the custody judgment, she has been evaluated by a third party professional who found her completely competent and able to care for her children. The woman told Wright that despite this evidence, she’s unable to contest the custody judgment in part because of the mounting legal fees.
Another call Wright received came from a divorced man with concerns about the welfare of his children in the custody of their mother. Wright said the man told him that the mother of his children had begun a relationship with a man who was believed to be sexually molesting a female child. Whether or not the man’s claim was true is unverified but the representative took note of the situation and the different dynamics at play within the juvenile courts and Children’s Division.
“[The calls] led me to think we need to look at what’s going on with the courts, DFS, and so on,” said Wright. “So that’s when I reached out to Jennifer Tidball who’s the acting director [of the Children’s Division] for the entire area.”
Tidball was there representing the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services/Children’s Services and brought with her Beverly Newman who represented the juvenile courts.
All totaled, Wright said Tidball brought five or six people from Jefferson City representing different parts of the children’s services system.
“They all came down here to listen to our local concerns,” Wright explained. “The concerns we’ve got are from St. Louis, through Jefferson County, and all the way down to St. Francois County.”
Wright said he also received a call from a local attorney who expressed the challenges of working within Missouri’s juvenile court system.
Area attorneys present at the meeting included Vonne Karraker, Julie McCarver, Robert Huelskamp, and Ed Pultz as well as some attorneys for the Children’s Division and juvenile services.
St. Francois County Public Administrator Gary Matheny, who is also an attorney, was also present at the discussion.
Legislators in attendance included Rep. Chris Dinkins, R-Annapolis, and Rep. Mike McGirl, R-Potosi. Rep. Mike Henderson, R-Bonne Terre, was unable to attend due to a scheduling conflict.
Tidball said that the ultimate goal of the department is to make sure that they’re doing everything to keep children safe while listening to feedback from the public.
“We actually asked a Safety Task Force to come together this summer and make recommendations to our department on what we could do to help strengthen our system and make sure the kids are safe,” said Tidball.
She said that one of the actions her department took at the beginning of November was bringing back a risk assessment tool to children’s division workers to use when determining whether or not a child should be removed from a home.
It was explained that the process of making a decision to remove a child from a home comes down to whether or not the child is in immediate or imminent danger.
Wright asked Tidball if policies and procedures were now in place that would ensure that the process of assessing risk in a home was universal throughout the Children’s Division offices.
Tidball explained that one of the problems faced in standardizing the way a home is evaluated for risk is the high turnover rate among Children’s Division workers. She said the workers who have been in the field for years are generally consistent as they’ve used the risk assessment tool in the past. However, new workers don’t always intuitively evaluate risk the same way in every case, according to Tidball.
She said that she believed the re-implementation of the risk assessment tool would help in standardizing the decision-making process going forward.
Huelskamp, who practices law in Ste. Genevieve, told Tidball that as an attorney in the trenches, he knew without a doubt that children were being removed from homes without notice for reasons far less severe than the ones she had mentioned.
Attorney for the Children’s Division, Mark Gutchan, responded saying that with the state’s implementation of the Permanency Program, they are now looking at whether or not the right children are coming into the system. He said the decision to remove a child from a home and place them in the system falls on the juvenile court.
“The Children’s Division doesn’t have the authority to remove a child from a home,” explained Gutchan. “We can give information to the juvenile officer and make a recommendation but, it’s ultimately up to the juvenile officer and the juvenile court judge to make a decision as to under what circumstances the removal is appropriate.”
He explained that in his experience, the criteria for making these decisions vary from court to court.
“I have been in front of one judge who said, ‘If I took kids away from every parent who smokes marijuana, I would be taking kids away from half the parents in my county,” Gutchan recalled. “I’ve been in front of another judge not too far away who said, ‘If there’s marijuana in that home, we are removing those kids.’”
Newman, representing the juvenile court system, said that the department is working on implementing best practices and making sure that everything is fair and consistent.
“There’s a lot of work that’s going on in that regard,” said Newman. “Last week, for the first time, we brought all the circuit managers from all 46 circuits in the State of Missouri and the chief juvenile officers together.
“We’ve adopted juvenile officer performance standards and we’re now doing the training and support to implement those to sort of create that consistency and those elements there,” she explained. “Now we’re doing next-level things and we have four phases to that process that is pretty significant over the next year.”
Karraker, who practices law out of her Farmington office, said that she believed the lack of training and life experience has a lot to do with why things are not working properly right now.
“When I come to, for instance, a family support team meeting and I take my recorder – maybe my client isn’t there – and I plop it down on the table, the hostility that I get from these division workers who haven’t read their manual and don’t know that the language says that there is an absolute right to record,” said Karraker. “The most recent five counties I’ve been in not one single person who works for the division or the juvenile office knew this and as a result, it sets the stage for so much hostility…”
Tidball said that one of the things she noticed when coming to the department in May was that training for children’s workers isn’t centralized and that would be changing soon. She said that out of the new Safety Task Force came a decision to train workers in-house to ensure consistency as well as identify the best policies.
“The hope is, by early summer or late spring, that we’ve developed a training academy for our frontline workers,” said Tidball. “But we’re also getting feedback for what we can do right now.”
Karraker raised concerns about what she called an “almost incestuous relationship” between the Children’s Division, the juvenile office, and the court-appointed individuals acting as a representative for a child in a court proceeding known as the guardian ad litem (GAL).
“In between court dates, the juvenile office and the guardian ad litem have absolute control over the lives of every single person involved in the case,” Karraker said speaking from her experience. “And that dynamic is never felt more strongly than in a family support team meeting.”
Karraker described how that dynamic has played out in the courtroom throughout the entire time as she’s handled juvenile cases.
She said that there are statutes and court orders that are often ignored and there’s nothing that she as an attorney can do about it.
“… We have never felt more bullied and more powerless than we do in those months between court dates,” explained Karraker. “And when and if we’re lucky enough to get in front of the court, we have 30 seconds, 60 seconds, five minutes … I have actually had a judge tell me, ‘Vonne, I got to work with these people.’”
When bringing up violations of court orders, Karraker said that even with evidence there’s no guarantee that anything will be done about it.
She went on to make suggestions that she felt would increase communication and accountability within the children’s services system emphasizing the need for some type of checks and balances on the decision-makers.
“Honestly, unless the legislation is changed, I don’t see a juvenile court doing anything to help these clients and these parents, grandparents, and kids, in between that gray area,” she said. “In that 90-days or 60-days between review hearings, that’s where everything goes wrong.”
A point was brought up by Joan Hoyt, who said she recently graduated from law school and has worked in the family court system in St. Louis County.
“[Missouri] is the only state that has the dual system with both Children’s Division and juvenile officer which takes away the role of a judge as a neutral – our judges in these cases are not neutrals,” Hoyt said. “The juvenile officer reports directly to the judge so that changes the situation.”
Newman responded by saying that changes have been made and there is now a separation of powers pursuant to a Supreme Court rule where the judges who hear the cases in juvenile court are not the same judges that are involved with the juvenile officer.
Hoyt then referred to a Missouri Law Review published by the University of Missouri School of Law Repository which argues that Missouri’s juvenile court structure violates the Missouri Constitution’s separation of powers clauses by placing prosecutorial discretion within the judicial branch.
“By granting juvenile officers, who are subject to judge’s supervision, exclusive power to file child abuse and neglect and juvenile delinquency cases, Missouri law concentrates power into the hands of one branch of the government,” stated by Josh Gupta-Kagan in “Where the Judiciary Prosecutes in Front of Itself: Missouri’s Unconstitutional Juvenile Court Structure 78 Mo. L. Rev. (2013).”
McCarver, who practices law in Farmington, said the law review article brought up by Hoyt was a very good point.
“I’m focusing on a term Vonne used earlier which is ‘incestuous,’” said McCarver. “Our system is incestuous.
“Despite the fact that the law changed recently and now suddenly we say we’re going to have another judge who’s in charge of the juvenile office and then we’re going to say only that judge is in charge of hiring and firing juvenile office people for all these years,” she said. “We’re going to pretend that they don’t have anything to do with that system anymore … and if we’re supposed to believe there’s not this incestuous relationship between the Children’s Division and the juvenile office and the actual court system, in our circuit particularly, that’s crazy.”
After a number of concerns were raised by the attorneys at the table, Pultz, who practices law in Farmington, suggested listening to what others not at the table had to say.
Linda Dickerson stood up to comment and said she’s never had experience with the system but knows people who have.
“What I’m hearing from the outside of the system, from foster parents and a person who tried to be a foster parent but was treated extremely badly by the local office … and I’m sorry to say this but you’ve admitted to the lack of education; you’ve admitted to the lack of training; you’ve admitted to the fact that your employees have hostility coming into an environment,” said Dickerson addressing the state officials. “How could that make any situation better?”
Tidball responded saying that she hoped it at least said something that she came to listen to concerns. She said she knows the system isn’t perfect and she will be bringing the concerns raised in the meeting back to Jefferson City.
Tidball also said she wanted to make sure people are educated about the ways they can bring grievances to the division’s central office and going forward, she said she’d be very interested in seeing exactly what grievances are coming out of the local circuit.
Dickerson responded to Tidball and said the reason she may not see very many grievances might be due to the fact that “these children are being hung like a carrot and dangled over these families…”
Karraker agreed and said that, in her experience, if a parent asserts their right in a juvenile case, there will be retaliation.
Another woman observing the meeting stood up and addressed Tidball.
She said that she and her husband had opened their home to a foster child who had been removed from his home because “the mother didn’t have any parenting skills.”
She said when the child was brought to her house, he had obviously been abused sexually and had bruises all over his body.
“When I called [the Children’s Division worker] she said, ‘It’s after 5 o’clock on Friday, don’t bother me until Monday unless it’s an emergency,’” the woman recounted. “I explained that it was [an emergency,] had the text messages, and still got nowhere.”
She said the following Monday, she requested a meeting with a supervisor only to be told that supposedly she and her husband refused to come to a meeting.
The woman gave Tidball an envelope which she said contained a check from the division. She said that she was not fostering children for the money but was doing it specifically for the children.
In the 24th Circuit alone, more than 600 children are currently involved in the children’s services system. The officials from Jefferson City said they plan to make changes that have already been planned as well as bring the concerns raised in the meeting back with them to discuss and find potential solutions.
Bobby Radford is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com