Toddler's legacy is review of Missouri's foster care system
By Nancy Cambria
June 24, 2009 / stltoday.com
Seven years after a toddler was killed in a Missouri foster home, his legacy lives in a final push to gain accreditation for the state agency that failed him.
Missouri has spent nearly $17 million reorganizing and upgrading its Children's Division to gain the New York-based Council on Accreditation's stamp of approval. That designation is expected as early as this fall, making Missouri one of a handful of state child welfare agencies to be fully accredited.
Reviewers completed their audit of the St. Louis division of the state Children's Division last week. The visit marked the end of three years of on-site reviews of the division's 45 offices and its headquarters in Jefferson City.
Lawmakers mandated that the division gain accreditation after Dominic James, 2, was shaken to death by his Springfield foster parent in August 2002 — three months after state caseworkers removed him from his parents' home. An investigation revealed that caseworkers and managers ignored strong claims by his father, Sidney James, and court advocates that Dominic was being abused in the foster home. That review also cast doubt on whether Dominic should have been taken from his parents.
"I didn't know enough about the system and who to talk to," explained James, who now lives in north St. Louis.
Officials with the Children's Division said the designation is like a gold standard.
"This does mean something for families," said Paula Neese, Children's Division director. "It gives them a feeling that certain standards have been met. We feel like we owe that to our most vulnerable children and families."
But at least one child welfare watchdog said accreditation doesn't guarantee safety or fairness.
Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform said the accreditation focuses on paperwork, not people.
"It accredits file cabinets," he said.
The Children's Division, an arm of the Department of Social Services, is responsible for child abuse and neglect investigations and the care of about 9,700 children in state custody.
State officials say accreditation will better ensure communication, fairness, proper services and safety for people who come into contact with the division and its employees.
The state Legislature has so far appropriated $16.8 million to comply with the council's standards. Many of the improvements have been in facilities, staff training and education. Regulators found early on that levels of staff education were too low and office facilities inadequate, Neese said.
About $60,000 went directly to the council to pay for the review. The state also pays expenses for site visits.
Reid Scher, head of accreditation with the council, said reviewers looked to see if procedures were being consistently followed and clients given the proper information and services they needed. No major problems were found during reviews of individual offices, and no offices needed extensions to comply with standards. Missouri was far ahead of most other states with programs, he said.
But skeptics like Wexler argue that accreditation focuses too heavily on procedures and not enough on the actual experiences of foster children and their parents. He points to Kentucky, which also earned national accreditation. Even with the designation, state officials there released a scathing report on its children's division, accusing it of unjustly taking children from poor families and manipulating caseloads to meet accreditation standards.
"What is crucial here is what they don't measure," Wexler said of the reviewers. "They don't look face to face enough with foster children. There's nothing in those standards that asks, did you make the right decision when you decided to remove a child from a home?"
Scher said that assessment is unfair. Reviewers do meet with foster parents, biological parents, caseworkers and children in prearranged interviews. They also randomly pull one or more case files during reviews and visit foster homes to interview clients on little notice.
But Wexler said that is a small window to gauge an enormous state system.
He noted state accreditors do not review foster care cases or residential homes managed by private child welfare agencies, though many of those agencies are individually accredited. In Missouri about a third of its foster care cases are now contracted out to those agencies, and all of its residential facilities are run independently of the state.
Nevertheless, Wexler and state officials agree the Children's Division has come a long way since Dominic's death. The number of children in state custody has shrunk by 17 percent, and Wexler noted the state does a good job of not mistaking poverty for neglect — a common reason children are unfairly placed in foster care.
James, now a volunteer with Joyce Meyer Ministries' Dream Center in north St. Louis, said he's on the mend after sinking into drugs and alcohol following his son's death. Clutching a fading photo of Dominic, he says he doesn't know what accreditation means — though he's glad Dominic's death has prompted action.
He hopes to one day open a homeless shelter for men with children — a place that he said could have saved Dominic from "the system."
"The police were willing to let Dominic go with me, but I had nowhere to go."