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Wasson Report 4.5.12

Preventing Child Abuse

In Missouri

On Tuesday, the Senate Health, Mental Health, Seniors and Families Committee conducted a hearing on Senate Bill 758, which would change the laws regarding hotline calls and investigations of child abuse and neglect to the Children’s Division of the Department of Social Services.

During the hearing, we heard testimony from Debra Davis, who called the child abuse hotline multiple times in 2005 to report her grandson, Gavin, was being abused by his mother’s boyfriend. A caseworker was sent to the home where Gavin was staying, but there was no one present. The caseworker left a business card and later returned to investigate the abuse allegations. After the second visit, it was determined there was no evidence of abuse.

Gavin was killed shortly thereafter. The mother’s ex-boyfriend was convicted in his death.

Debra talked about how the business card alerted the boyfriend that he was being investigated for abuse and gave him time to cover up evidence of the abuse and concoct a plausible story for Gavin’s injuries. She also stressed how multiple calls to the child abuse hotline did not speed up the process, despite those calls indicating Gavin was in probable danger.

This was a tragic incident, all the worse because Gavin’s grandmother made every effort to prevent it from happening. It also highlights the need for certain improvements in the process for investigating and dealing with child abuse allegations.

Senate Bill 758, which I’m sponsoring, enacts five critical changes to the handling of hotline abuse calls by the Children’s Division. First, in any case where a child is seriously injured or dies, the hotline worker or case workers who handled the case will receive a preliminary evaluation by the division to determine if the worker is still able to competently handle his or her duties.

Police officers who are involved with the death of a suspect are placed on administrative leave; the state should do something similar for hotline and case workers. We need to determine what level of counseling or care they might need, and ensure they’re still able to perform their job after handling such a case.

The legislation also requires the Children’s Division to review cases where repeated calls involving the same child occur within a 72-hour time period to determine if the calls meet the criteria to initiate a child abuse and neglect report. A single call can start the process of judging whether or not a child is being abused and if intervention is needed. But multiple calls within a short amount of time can give hotline workers a clearer picture, and that should warrant a faster response. And, this bill requires hotline workers to advise individuals to call 911 when a child may be in immediate danger. There is a certain bureaucratic process the Children’s Division has to follow, and that can take time. If a child is in immediate danger, people need to be aware that contacting 911 is an option.

The legislation also prohibits case workers responding to a hotline call from leaving a business card, pamphlet or other identifying information if there is no person present at the time of the home visit and alleged abused reside at the home, and if the alleged abuser is present during the visit, the caseworker is required to provide written material informing him or her of his or her rights regarding the visit.

To be clear, this bill is not about blaming or condemning the actions of the Children’s Division. They followed the guidelines set out by law. However, no system is perfect. If there are areas that require improvement, those issues need to be addressed. We cannot be complacent, especially when it comes to protecting children from abuse. And the Children’s Division, to its credit, has already enacted many of the changes in this bill, but it’s important to put these measures in statute.

These are difficult cases. They involve tough choices, and the right answer isn’t always clear. But we must do all we can to stop child abuse, and that’s the goal of this bill. Timothy and Debra Davis, Gavin’s grandparents, have worked tirelessly to see these changes enacted, and I offer my heartfelt appreciation for their dedication and perseverance in pursuing this issue. I hope we can get this bill passed.

If you have any questions or comments about this or any other matter regarding your state government, please feel free to contact me at (573) 751-1503; you are also welcome to e-mail me at