Missouri’s Children’s Division Exceeds Statutory Time Limits

The Children’s Division (CD) is the organization responsible for investigating allegations of child abuse and neglect in Missouri.  Two recent cases from Missouri appellate courts found that CD had failed to follow the time limits set in statute, thereby negating their investigations. See Williams v. Missouri, No. WD75693 (Mo. App. W.D. July 23, 2013) and Frey v. Levy, No. SD32307 (Mo. App. S.D. May 9, 2013).  Unfortunately, the causes of these failures are varied and don’t have a simple solution. Hit the jump for analyses of Williarms and Frye and some thoughts on how we’ve arrived here…

To understand the arguments, it helps to have some background information about the laws relating to allegations of abuse or neglect.  When Children’s Division (CD) receives a hotline call, alleging that an individual committed abuse or neglect against a child, they have thirty days to reach their conclusion.  See Mo. Rev. Stat. § 210.145.15.  CD can extend their investigation beyond 30 days if “good cause for the failure to complete the investigation is documented in the information system.”  However, within 90 days all involved parties “shall be notified in writing of any determination made by the division based on the investigation”  Mo. Rev. Stat. § 210.152.2.

The facts of Frye and Williams are similar: CD received hotline calls alleging child abuse or neglect, the investigation is delayed beyond 30 days for good cause, and eventually the allegations are found to be substantiated and the alleged perpetrator is placed in the Child Abuse and Neglect Registry.  What is at issue is that in both of these cases, the delay in the investigation pushed CD beyond the 90 day limit.  The plaintiffs argued that because CD had failed to follow the time limits, their findings were illegitimate and void.  CD argued that the time limits set forth in the statutes were actually just  guidance, essentially best practices, but could be exceeded for good cause.  In both cases, the court sided with the plaintiffs and reversed the findings of abuse or neglect.

While the court focused on interpreting the exact language of the statutes, it’s important to keep in mind the reason for the time limits.  When an allegation of child abuse is made, CD is notified of a situation that could potentially be an emergency where a child could be in danger.  Therefore, haste is necessary when CD is investigating.  Additionally, this means that merely extending the time that CD has to complete their investigations would actually be counter-productive.

The causes of these delays are multi-faceted and call for legislative assistance.  First and foremost, CD has been just as much a victim of budget cuts as any part of the state government which has led to decreases in staff.  The legislature then compounds this difficulty with expansions to child abuse and neglect reporting laws.  These changes include requiring all potential reports of abuse and neglect in schools to go straight to CD instead of allowing those that are not abuse and neglect to be dealt with administratively (House Bill 505) and removing discretion from individuals with experience recognizing abuse or neglect so that they could potentially be forced to hotline allegations that they know to be false (Mo. Rev. Stat. 160.261.11).  So fewer individuals are responsible for handling more hotline calls.

Unfortunately, a significant portion of my time is spent helping public school employees deal with false or misguided allegations of abuse or neglect.  With all of the negative publicity on public school employees, and particularly teachers, we are handling more and more individuals who have been hotlined even though nothing at all happened.  In all of my dealings with varied CD investigators, I have found them to be nothing if not professional, conscientious, and rapid but as all of these competing forces are placed on CD, it will be no surprise if Frye and Williams are not the last such cases.

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