- U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple, U.S. District Court, Western District of Missouri
- March 1, 1977
- Focus Areas
- Child Health, Families Together, Government Accountability
In 1977, Children’s Rights joined Legal Aid of Western Missouri and local advocates in a class action to reform the grossly inadequate child welfare system in Jackson County, Missouri. The charged the Missouri Division of Family Services (DFS) with many failures, including endangering the lives of children in state custody by failing to properly investigate and monitor foster homes. At the time the lawsuit was filed, children in foster care in Jackson County experienced very high rates of abuse and neglect, while living in foster homes that were often unsafe, unsanitary and poorly supervised.
A Settlement Agreement was reached with Missouri officials in 1983, mandating top-to-bottom reform of the foster care system. After the state repeatedly failed to implement court-ordered reforms, Children’s Rights and co-counsel successfully filed a contempt motion against the state and a full trial was held in 1992. A new Settlement Agreement was reached and approved in 1994; it mandated many improvements, such as training for foster parents and mandatory criminal history and child abuse checks for prospective foster families.
Over the next ten years, with court oversight, DFS successfully implemented all of the reforms required by the settlement agreement. Thanks to the lawsuit, the foster children of Jackson County benefited from vast, systemic improvements during the period of federal monitoring, including:
- A decrease in the length of stay for children in foster care, with a median time of 32 months in 1995 to 17 months in 2005, getting children to permanency 46.9 percent faster.
- Adoption planning was conducted within required timeframes in almost 95 percent of cases by 2005.
- In 1995, 48.6 percent of caseworkers had caseloads of more than 25 children. By 2007, nearly 90 percent of caseworkers had appropriate, manageable caseloads of 15 to 25 children per worker.
- By 2005, children consistently received routine and timely medical and mental health services at least 90 percent of the time. By 2007, health plans for “medically fragile” children were reviewed and revised as required in 98.5 percent of cases.
- Detailed foster home licensing standards were created and enforced. By 2007, almost 95 percent of placements conformed to licensing regulations.
- Mandatory foster parent training programs were created. In 2007, almost 90 percent of foster parents received pre-service training and more than 92 of foster parents completed in-service training.
- The state developed new programs to comply with the settlement agreement, including a state-of-the-art caseworker training program; Family Support Teams; mobile dental services; an internal quality assurance unit; and a Community Quality Assurance Committee to act as a watchdog after the state exited monitoring, which continued to receive data and reports, conduct its own reviews and provided public recommendations to DFS.
On February 1, 2006, the court conditionally dismissed the case court oversight officially ended, and the state agreed to keep in place until 2009 the policies, practices and staff positions created as a result of the lawsuit.
At the time the complaint was filed, there were five named plaintiffs, including siblings K.W. and T.W., a 6-year-old girl and 4-year-old boy. T.W.’s severe speech and language disabilities required specialized care and an involved parent, but the foster mother with whom the siblings were placed refused to participate in T.W.’s education program. As a result, he failed to progress in school. DFS not only knew that the foster mother was unsupportive of T.W., but also that credible sources said she had physically abused her foster children. Even when DFS social workers requested that K.W. and T.W. be removed from the home, DFS refused, subjecting the children to further physical and emotional harm.