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JEFFERSON CITY — No one knows exactly how many children in Missouri are diverted to family or friends after their parents lose custody.

Developing a system to track that information would cost the state around $128,000, Jennifer Tidball, division director at the Missouri Department of Social Services, said at a Friday hearing of the Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect.

“If we have workers that are making a decision to divert a child, clearly we would want to capture that as part of the record,” Tidball said. “Even though it might be part of a paper record today, we don’t have a systemic way to look at the data and determine whether or not that’s happening in the right cases.”

There are over 12,000 children currently in Missouri’s foster system, Rep. Hannah Kelly, R-Norwood, said. That number doesn’t include children who have been diverted because those numbers aren’t tracked.

“I’m on the budget committee, and if we have to find the $128,000, I’ll look for it,” Kelly said. “We can’t effectively institute changes within the system if we don’t fully understand the total amount of children in limbo.”

Kelly said she would guess there are more than 5,000 or 6,000 children in diversion.

“How can we shape good policy if we don’t know the enormity of the numbers?”

Foster care shortages

Kelly also talked about reducing the training time required to become a foster parent in Missouri. In order to become a foster parent, someone must take nine weeks of training. Kelly said she would like to reduce that to three.

“We have a dire need for foster parents, and we have a lot of really good people,” Kelly said. “You can say, ‘Well, if you can’t (find nine weeks), you shouldn’t be a foster parent’ — it’s easy to say that when you’re on the sidelines.”

Kelly said she wants to create an accelerated training for foster parents to help reduce the current need but stressed that the shortened training time would not compromise the amount of knowledge prospective fosters are learning.

Tidball said the shortage is not limited to foster parents. There is a shortage of people willing to fill positions in the Department of Social Services.

Christy Collins, deputy director of the department’s Children’s Division, said caseworkers exceed their recommended workload every day.

“We do have openings, but it’s finding people who are willing to come and do the work and who stay and do the work,” Tidball said. “It’s really tough work, and it takes a special person to do that.”

Tidball said her department is working to support workers in those positions by listening to their needs.

“I hear a lot about work-life balance,” Tidball said. “It’s trying to look at those things and restructure and build a support system that will hopefully keep people in the jobs and make the job something that people want to look at as a career.”

Supervising editor is Tynan Stewart.

This article originally ran on columbiamissourian.com.

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