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As the Missouri Department of Social Services continues to face criticism for its handling of abuse accusations in youth homes, the House Special Committee on Government Oversight held a hearing to look into the department.

Director Jennifer Tidball answered questions about why parents were not allowed to visit their children in DSS facilities during the pandemic and why almost 100 positions in the department were eliminated.

In March, the Kansas City Star released an investigation that showed children being starved, raped and beaten in some boarding schools throughout the state. This report prompted widespread scrutiny of how DSS handled the situation. The oversight committee hearing is the latest of the inquiries into DSS.

Because of COVID-19, parents were temporarily prohibited from visiting their children in Division of Youth Services facilities. Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Republic, said the lack of face-to-face contact parents were allowed with their children is alarming.

"I can't imagine being a parent and having a child separated from me and (DSS) taking custody of them and me not having physical contact with them this entire year that we've been in COVID," Taylor said.

With phone and video chat visits, he speculated that someone could be in the room and pressure the child not to raise any alarms. Also, rapid COVID-19 tests are required to enter facilities, so he raised concerns that evidence could be destroyed while the investigators are waiting to enter the facility.

"I feel like we're seeing Circle of Hope all over again in facilities that we run. How is this acceptable?" Taylor asked.

Taylor was referring to the Circle of Hope Girls Ranch, where the owners were charged with abuse, child molestation and statutory rape. Young girls at the boarding school were allegedly subjected to having their faces shoved into horse manure and having hot sauce poured down their throat, among other accusations.

Other legislators shared Taylor's concerns.

"To not let parents go see their troubled child for a year, do you think that actually helped the child? It doesn't help the child; it doesn't help the parents; it doesn't help anybody," Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, said.

Sharie Hahn, general counsel for DSS, said the children in the facilities had committed a crime and were ordered by the courts to be under the custody of the Division of Youth Services.

"We do have certain obligations to make sure of their safety and to care for them," Hahn said.

Hahn said curbside visits and outside visits were allowed and DSS had to remain flexible as it learned more about COVID-19.

The other major concern raised during the hearing was the removal of around 100 employees. Tidball said the cuts were intended to "flatten the children's division." She added that no case-bearing frontline workers were impacted.

While Tidball said the job cuts didn't increase the frontline workers' workload, Rep. Crystal Quade, D-Springfield, said her constituents have shared that some of those who lost their jobs stepped in to carry some of the burden when caseworkers were overworked.

"What I'm being told as a representative is that, frankly, children are not being (served) the way that they should," Quade said.

Tidball said they looked for any redundancies and the results of positions when considering where to cut. She said they had to evaluate employees to see if their jobs could be streamlined to make the department more effective.

"Within Children's Division, the work that you're tasked with and that division does — caring for the most vulnerable Missourians and innocent children, trying to protect them — it does seem like a peculiar place to go for cutting staff," Rep. Dirk Deaton, R-Noel, said.

Another point of concern for the House Special Committee on Government Oversight was the revelation that the cuts were discussed months before the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the department's initial explanation that the cuts were due to budget hardships caused by the pandemic.

Quade said that when the layoffs happened, the information that went out to staff about the cuts pointed to COVID-19 as the main reason for the cuts.

Tidball said the department discussed several reasons for the cuts. She said that after initial budget talks, they weren't far enough along to propose the cuts before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The work of the Missouri News Network is written by Missouri School of Journalism students and editors for publication by Missouri Press Association member newspapers.

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