May 4, 2014; Kansas City Star

The nation is replete with slogans about kids. “Children are the future.” “Children first.” “Making your child’s world better.” “Preparing children for success in a changing world.” Dozens of children-related mottos guide legislators and nonprofit agencies. But when it comes for putting actual government dollars toward the needs of children, especially those with the deepest needs, money into child welfare systems, some politicians and legislatures balk.

In Missouri, Governor Jay Nixon has said that the state’s child welfare system is seriously short of money, to the tune of millions of dollars. Nixon has proposed that the system get $6 million to help recruit, train and retain employees, hire investigators, upgrade computer systems, and pay for increases for more than 850 workers. The Democratic governor apparently has some challenges ahead in convincing Republicans in the state legislature that the child welfare system really needs the additional funds. Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia) says that he isn’t quite convinced that additional funding would work to improve child welfare in the state. “Do we really need all those folks?” Schaefer said about the child welfare system staffing. “Who’s done the analysis on whether or not we need this many folks as opposed to keeping the folks who have led us to where we are today?”

Nixon’s proposed budget increase, largely approved in the Missouri House but getting no traction in the state senate, is meant in part to address problems of high staff turnover and low pay in the child welfare system. Schaefer defended the senate’s inaction by saying that low pay and high turnover exist as problems throughout state government. It is a strange argument; the state underpays and mistreats state employees as a matter of course, so why should it pay attention to the pay and working conditions of child welfare workers? The state budget already calls for a one-percent pay boost for everyone in state government, though if the employees in the Children’s Division are among the state’s lowest paid employees, the pay increase will not move toward rectifying inequities.

Nonprofits seem to be on the side of the governor in this instance. “We need this proposal to go through for re-accreditation and, most importantly, to solve the problems we know are happening,” said Emily van Schenkhof of Missouri KidsFirst.

The problems are showing up at various levels, including the reversal of fortunes in Jackson County, whose child welfare services, once a state and national model, are now in crisis due to expanding caseloads and high levels of staff turnover. “It’s certainly discouraging,” said Lori Ross, president and CEO of the Midwest Foster Care and Adoption Association, about Jackson County’s problems. “It’s discouraging to the folks who work at the Children’s Division, discouraging to the community to see there’s been a backslide in the quality of service.”

For those nonprofit leaders who eschew the importance of government funding and think that the solutions for nonprofits and the populations they serve lie in charitable donations, look at Missouri’s child welfare system and its funding and staffing problems. There’s no point in imagining that the needs being addressed by the child welfare system can be wished away. Child abuse and other problems facing children are terrible, but real. State agencies and nonprofit organizations properly funded in the child welfare system are necessary to do what is needed—unless, of course, all those kid-friendly slogans and mottoes are really no more than meaningless strings of feel-good words.—Rick Cohen