JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – The Department of Social Services remains under fire by lawmakers for the way the agency is being run as legislators feel they aren’t being told the truth about state facilities.
The acting director for the department was in front of a House committee Thursday for the second time in less than two weeks. Members of the committee stressed their frustration because of the information the agency is leaving out when it comes to abuse and neglect at state facilities.
“Because we hear the stories and then you come here and say everything is fine, all the kids are good, everything is great, and then we hear stories of basically torture for these kids,” Rep. Dottie Bailey (R-Eureka), said. “So, you wonder why you’re here? We’re just trying to figure it out.”
The state’s child welfare system has been on lawmakers’ radar for months, as two unlicensed facilities are currently under investigation by the attorney general’s office for alleged abuse.
“Is it incompetence?” Committee Chair Rep. Jered Taylor (R-Republic) said. “Is it, are you trying to hide something? How am I supposed to, as a state representative, trust the department?”
Records were given to the committee Thursday that show more than 150 incidents of neglect and physical and mental abuse in unlicensed and licensed facilities between 2015 and 2020. Mater’s Ranch Christian Academy, an unlicensed facility in Couch, Missouri, has 10 preponderances of evidence findings for neglect. Great Circle, a licensed facility in St. James, Missouri, has 14 findings of neglect, six findings of physical abuse, and two findings of sexual abuse.
“From continuous hearings with you all that you’ve known that this is an issue at both unlicensed and licensed facilities for decades, but we are not able to get the data to show the scope of the problem is,” Rep. Keri Ingle (D-Lee’s Summit) said.
Back in March, Attorney General Eric Schmitt said 71-year-old Boyd and 55-year-old Stephanie Householder, owners and operators of Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch in southwest Missouri, 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.
Committee members said they are frustrated with DSS for not providing all the numbers previously.
“I don’t buy any of it, I don’t buy any of it at all,” Bailey said. “I think it’s hogwash that we are not getting the right numbers and that we have to come back here today to do this. It’s ridiculous and it’s getting old.”
The department blamed their outdated system that they have been using since 2005.
“There is actually a system change that we are working on right now,” Acting DSS Director Jennifer Tidball said.
General Counsel for the department, Sharie Hahn, said DSS has to review all reports manually and can take time.
“The intent was actually to provide even more information, not less information,” Hahn said. “There’s nothing intentional here.”
Other members on the committee want to know why more money isn’t going towards frontline workers.
“I guess I would like better understanding about the decision to spend COVID money on computers when we’re hearing that we need improvement and it’s because of a faulty system, is my understanding that we ended up with bad numbers,” Rep. Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove) 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 and said DSS was fine with the budget request of 11.
Bailey said she would like to see an audit of the department to check on the kids that haven’t been allowed to physically see their children during the pandemic. The department told members that news last week, which worried representatives that the state could be liable for any issues that went on inside state facilities.
“DSS is on this planet to protect these kids and we’re not talking about these kids,” Bailey said. “Have these kids been seen in a year? We’re missing kids out there because we couldn’t figure out how to put a hazmat suit on to get into these facilities or foster care homes.”
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.
Besides Circle of Hope, Schmitt’s office is also investigating Agape Boarding School for Boys. Lawmakers have been pushing for legislation to regulate unlicensed facilities in the state. House Bill 557 passed out of the House in March and is waiting to be approved in the Senate.