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Holden reworks Missouri's child services

December 17, 2002

By: Amy Menefee

State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Gov. Bob Holden is mandating an overhaul of children's services after an investigation of child welfare prompted by the death of a 2-year-old in foster care.

Holden's announcement Tuesday created an independent ombudsman's position overseeing child welfare in the state. He also received the resignation of Robin Gierer, associate director of child welfare.

Family Services, which covers welfare, foster care and child abuse, will be reorganized, as will the entire child support system. A Fatality Review Panel will attend to abuse and neglect charges.

Holden spokeswoman Mary Still said the plan "streamlines" the Department of Social Services by turning over some of its duties to other state agencies and renaming its divisions.

"It does not set up any more divisions than exist today," said Chris Rackers, associate director of Social Services. "We will be looking at how to use existing resources. Functions and positions will change."

Rackers said she expects the changes, which are effective immediately, to be complete by July.

Deb Hendricks, director of communication for Social Services, said she is not sure what the reorganization will look like on a local level. Family Services operates offices in every county in the state, and Hendricks said the structure of those offices might change.

But Sen. Bill Foster, R-Poplar Bluff, said he needs proof that the reorganized divisions will add responsibility to the department.

"I don't think it'll help the children, and I think it'll cost more money," Foster said. "It won't help them, it won't hurt them, but all we're doing is increasing cost."

Foster chairs the Senate committee that has been looking into children's protective services and foster care. He said lawmakers warned the governor earlier this year that reorganization might not be a feasible long-term solution.

"The legislature told him that it was too expensive and it would add more levels in the long run," Foster said. "I can't see any efficiency in dividing this."

As for lower-level jobs in the newly-named Family Support Division and Children's Services Division, the future is unclear. Holden spokeswoman Mary Still said she doesn't know yet whether the move will result in a net gain or loss of state jobs.

"We're not reinventing the wheel," Still said. "There's the feeling that by streamlining, it won't add at all to the budget."

Functions of the existing Division of Child Support Enforcement will be absorbed by three departments in the new lineup.

Child support services came under scrutiny in a November audit, which found about $1 billion in support owed was not collected between 1996 and 2001.

State Auditor Claire McCaskill said she was "pleased to see the executive branch taking action," though she wasn't convinced the governor was taking the best option.

"I don't know that dividing the responsibility is necessarily a good idea," McCaskill said. She said it might be frustrating for parents who call to "have to deal with another set of bureaucrats."

"We strongly recommended privitization, and it doesn't sound like they're looking at that," McCaskill said.