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MO Children’s Division leaders hope to clear St. Louis-area abuse and neglect backlog in a year

Adrienne Williams, a senior social services specialist with the Department of Social Services, waits for interested applicants to fill out forms during a hiring event on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023, at the Family Support Division building in Overland, Mo. DSS is has a shortage of investigators, which has led to a backlog of cases. The backlog has also created high caseloads for investigators, which sometimes leads them to quit and increases the shortage.
Tristen Rouse
/
St. Louis Public Radio
Adrienne Williams, a senior social services specialist with the Department of Social Services, waits for interested applicants to fill out forms during a hiring event on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2023, at the Family Support Division building in Overland, Mo. DSS is has a shortage of investigators, which has led to a backlog of cases. The backlog has also created high caseloads for investigators, which sometimes leads them to quit and increases the shortage.

Officials say tackling St. Louis and St. Louis County’s more than 6,000 abuse and neglect cases will require hiring more investigators.

The leaders in charge of the Missouri agency entrusted with overseeing child abuse and neglect investigations say they’re seeing positive trends with clearing the St. Louis-area’s backlog of cases.

But while there’s optimism that the roughly 6,000 open cases of abuse and neglect can be eliminated, accomplishing that goal will require hiring more investigators and making sure they’re properly trained, officials said.

Department of Social Services Director Robert Knodell and Children’s Division Director Darrell Missey testified before the House Children and Families Committee on Tuesday. One of the topics of conversation was a St. Louis Public Radio and Midwest Newsroom investigation on the backlog in the office that encompasses St. Louis and St. Louis County.

As of mid-August, there were 6,124 cases of alleged abuse or neglect that remained open after 45 days — by far the largest backlog in the state. And the 16 investigators have workloads of around 150 cases, compared to the 12 to 15 that national groups suggest.

Knodell told members of the House committee that the St. Louis office is seeing positive trends. He pointed to money that the General Assembly allocated to help improve management and training at the office, as well as Children’s Division employees from around the region helping pare down the backlog.

“And the good news is we are now seeing week to week more investigations being closed than open,” Knodell said. “So that number of overdue reports is being reduced. And we envision hopefully within the next year that being eliminated.”

The Department of Social Services has a hiring fair every Tuesday at its Page Avenue office in St. Louis County. And Knodell said those events are showing some success.

Although the department has hired more investigators, both Knodell and Missey emphasized that it can take awhile to train them — meaning that they won’t be available right away to help reduce the caseloads of existing workers.

“You hire someone in the door, they're simply not going to be able to take the caseload on Monday morning of someone who left on Friday afternoon,” Knodell said. “So that churn does reduce the capacity. But we are beginning to see hiring improve in that region.”

“We are very much hopeful that the challenges that are unique to the St. Louis region … we will be able to address,” he added. “And I hope to have a much better story to tell you by January.”

Some lawmakers from both parties have called for raising the starting salary for investigators, which is around $43,000 a year. And while the Children’s Division cannot contract with private companies to perform investigations, Sen. Mary Elizabeth Coleman has introduced legislation to allow contractors to assess whether a child is safe.

Missey said getting the backlog under control will come down to adequately staffing the St. Louis office. He said that while the office is getting help from St. Charles and Jefferson county workers, “there's only so much you can do with it when you don't have the people.”

Rep. Hannah Kelly, chairwoman of the Children and Families Committee, said she appreciated Missey's giving her colleagues numbers that spelled out the problems.

“I think it's testament to the fact that collaboration takes everybody a long way,” said Kelly, R-Mountain Grove. “First time in seven years I've heard such specific numbers for a solution. We all know that there's no perfect solution. But it's obvious that your guys' leadership is making an effort in the right direction.”
Copyright 2023 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Jason Rosenbaum