Lawmakers shocked to learn children in state care could not physically see parents during pandemic

Missouri

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Lawmakers were told by the acting director of the Missouri Department of Social Services parents were not allowed to see their children in person at state facilities for the last year. 

Members of the House Special Committee on Government Oversight were shocked to hear parents were not allowed to physically see their children during the pandemic, which worries representatives the state could be liable for any issues that went on inside state facilities. 

“How do you know that kid was okay via Zoom for a year?” Rep. Dottie Bailey (R-Eureka) asked the acting director. “This is very alarming to me.”

The Department of Social Services has been under fire by lawmakers for the past six months, as two unlicensed facilities are now being investigated by the attorney general’s office for alleged abuse. 

“How is this acceptable, how is this something we’ve allowed to happen in the last year?” Committee Chair Rep. Jered Taylor (R-Republic) said. 

Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office is investigating two boarding schools, a Christian boys’ reform school in Stockton called Agape Boarding School and the Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch.

Earlier in March, Schmitt said 71-year-old Boyd and 55-year-old Stephanie Householder face charges of abuse and neglect of a child, rape, sodomy, and endangering the welfare of a child. There are 102 charges between the two.

During the hearing Tuesday, members were told by Acting Director Jennifer Tidball said because of COVID, parents have not been able to see their kids, who are put in state facilities by a judge. Tidball said the facilities are run by the Division of Youth Services. 

“That’s concerning to me,” Taylor said. “Do you not see the issue? I know that COVID is a big deal, and we have issues, but not being able to see your child for a year and not knowing who’s behind the iPad to influence the child to make sure they say the right thing on the other side, that I’m not able to see. I feel like we’re seeing Circle of Hope all over again in facilities that we run.”

Tidball said outside of COVID, parents are asked to visit their child because it’s part of the treatment process.

“You should have put on hazmat suits, you should have figured out something but to not let parents go see their troubled child for year, do you think that actually helps the child?” Bailey said. 

Last summer, the department laid off 200 workers due to the governor’s budget restrictions from the pandemic. Last week, the Senate budget committee tried giving the money back to the department to rehire dozens of employees, but Tidball declined the offer. 

“We tried to give you all more money and then you say you don’t need it but then we see new positions created at the top, not at the bottom where we deal with children specifically,” House Minority Leader Crystal Quade (D-Springfield) said. 

Sen. Lincoln Hough (R-Springfield) tried giving the department the funding for 50 full-time employees, but Tidball said DSS was fine with the budget request of 11. 

Rep. Keri Ingle (D-Lee’s Summit) recommended the department give employees raises for retention. 

“The most important staff at the children’s division re the frontline workers, there’s no one more important than those people going out to our communities laying eyes on children and ensuring their safety,” Ingle said.

Tidball said parents are starting to be allowed back into facilities once a month to see their child. She said three people in the department died because of COVID-19 during the pandemic. 

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