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Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Efforts in Greene County Revealed

Michele Skalicky

The Community Partnership of the Ozarks’ Child Abuse and Neglect Collaborative has been working for two years to find solutions for problems children face in Greene County.  It outlined what it’s doing so far during an event at the Community Foundation of the Ozarks.  KSMU’s Michele Skalicky was there and has more.

The Greene County Children’s Division staff receives an average of 25 reports of suspected child abuse and neglect each month.  There’s an average of 850 to 890 children in foster care each month in the county.  Those numbers are why the CPO’s Child Abuse and Neglect Collaborative was formed.  The organization is working to find solutions to the problem of child abuse and neglect

One solution it decided to look into was improving the conditions for workers at the Greene County Children’s Division.  Dr. Mary Ann Jennings is a professor of social work at Missouri State University.

"Thousands of children in Greene County are at risk of child abuse and neglect, and it is the dedicated staff of Children's Division that has the responsibility to protect them, yet the Greene County office does not operate at full staff," she said.

Jennings said there’s a  high turnover rate at the agency.  Greene County Children’s Division currently is operating at two-thirds of the numbers it needs.  And, she said only half of the investigative positions are filled.   According to Jennings, this shouldn’t be allowed to continue.  She said a stable work force at the agency would help prevent child abuse and neglect.

A recent survey, commissioned by the Child Abuse and Neglect Collaborative, found that staff members there are satisfied with the kind of work they do, they have the support of their supervisors and co-workers and they have a low to average risk of burnout. 

"So, then we asked ourselves, 'well, if it's not the work and we have a committed workforce, why are so many people leaving the agency?'" she said.

Dr. Amanda Keys is an assistant professor of social work at MSU.  She said they found that the workers at the Greene County Children’s Division have extremely large caseloads, which makes them feel like they’re not able to spend as much time with each family as they need to.  And she said employees say there are unreasonable expectations regarding the amount of time and paperwork for each family they see.

"So those expectations often stress them out, make them feel like they're not doing a good job for the children and families that they're serving," she said.

Workers also expressed concern about the Children’s Division’s location on Park Central Square since many of them have to go in to work after dark.  And they feel their salaries aren’t as high as they should be considering the amount of work they do—many work 55 to 60 hours per week.

Dr. Keys said solutions to those issues need to be found.  Keeping a stable work force at the agency, she said, would cost less than dealing with constant turnover.

"For example, last year, in 2014, we had 30 people leave Greene County Children's Division.  What we find is that for every person that leaves Greene County Children's Division, that costs a third of an annual salary, so if we look at that, it costs more than $300,000 to replace the workforce last year," she said.

Dr. Jennings said positive efforts underway to address the problems at the organization need to be built upon including things like providing mobile technology for workers so they don’t have to duplicate tasks.  She described a program at MSU, made possible by a federal grant, which allows students to shadow Children’s Division caseworkers for a year while providing financial support.  The students don't have to pay back the money if they work for Children’s Division for a minimum of two years following graduation.  But she said there’s still much work to do to adequately protect children.

"We need to reduce caseload sizes, we need to be sure the local office has sufficient staff--the numbers of staff it needs, reduce unnecessary and duplicative and time consuming activities in the office that keep workers from actually treating the families and trying to prevent future abuse and prevent children from coming into care," she said.

Jennings encourages local churches and other organizations can get involved by donating things like bottles, formula, diapers and snacks to the Greene County Children’s Division.  Workers often pay for things like that out of their own money, she said.

Besides finding out how to improve conditions at the Children’s Division, the collaborative just announced a goal of getting 100 more foster families in Greene County in the next year.  There currently are many more children who need foster care in the county than there are foster homes, so children are often sent to other counties.

Scott and Jill Gunzenhauser are foster parents in Christian County.  They got into it slowly by doing respite foster care, which gives full-time foster care parents a break.  Scott said that lead to them taking in a 15-year-old girl on a full-time basis.

"We had reservations about that, but we just thought, 'well, we'll just try it,' and we did that, and after a time you just learn that you just kind of roll them into your lives, and they become a part of your family," he said.

That girl, who came from a home in north Springfield, was a straight F student who was a year behind in school.  Jill said they enrolled her in Finley River Alternative School.

"They got her through school a full year ahead and straight A's, and she's now at MSU, and she declared her major last week, and it's social work," she said.

She said foster care is a great opportunity to take in kids who are going down a bad road and turn them around.

According to Darrell Moore, co-chair of the Child Abuse and Neglect Collaborative, public service announcements will start airing on local media next week aimed both at parents who might abuse their kids and at the community—focusing on what the public can do to help children.