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State representatives are willing and ready to assist the Missouri Department of Social Services as it undergoes what its leadership calls "paramount" changes.

For the past several months, the DSS has come under fire for a variety of issues, including poor pay and heavy caseloads among front-line staff, a large number of vacancies in positions, and glaring inefficiencies in the services it is tasked with carrying out.

Earlier this week, DSS Acting Director Robert Knodell vowed to make internal changes to address the department's challenges and said he was conducting a 90-day evaluation and talking to front-line staff.

At a House appropriations subcommittee hearing Thursday morning, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle told department leaders they are committed to helping see those DSS changes come to fruition.

"I'd like to see this happen some way somehow, and I'll help find the money if that's all it takes," said state Rep. Dirk Deaton, R-Noel, and chairman of the appropriations subcommittee.

State Rep. Betsy Fogle, D-Springfield, told the department leaders to let committee members know if they can help get DSS priorities across the finish line.

DSS serves more than 2 million Missourians in various capacities, from overseeing the state's foster care and adoption services to handling Medicaid offerings and more.

Thursday's committee hearing focused on three issues in particular: how the department is working through implementing provisions of the Family First Prevention Services Act, how it is distributing funds from the Victims of Crime Act, and how it is making changes following the Office of Inspector General report on missing foster care children.

After receiving a two-year waiver that postponed implementation, DSS is formulating a plan to change the state's system to be in compliance with Family First Prevention Services Act and applying for another waiver.

The 2018 law establishes a set of reforms with the goal of keeping children with families or in community-type settings when foster care is needed, as opposed to more restrictive or institutional facilities.

Patrick Luebbering, DSS chief financial officer, said the department is working to understand how implementing the Family First provisions would affect its current funding structures as some placements would no longer be eligible for federal reimbursements.

DSS is also working out how to distribute federal funds provided through the Victims of Crime Act.

Luebbering said DSS is expecting less money to come in from the program so the department is attempting to create a reserve and limit the funds it distributes to non-profits, like child advocacy centers, based on region.

Jessica Seitz, executive director of Missouri KidsFirst, said the shrinking appropriation and regional distribution of funds could be detrimental to some child advocacy centers, particularly those that serve more than one area around the state.

Seitz said the department should use the $66 million in reserved VOCA funds to avoid cuts and potential disruptions now.

Lawmakers and DSS leadership also discussed a report from the Office of the Inspector General that found the DSS Children's Division didn't report when foster children went missing and didn't do enough to prevent children from going missing.

The report also suggested DSS needs to update its computer systems to distinguish children who are known to be in unauthorized placements from children who are actually missing.

"We need to do better," said state Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury. "This is not acceptable. I want to hear the things that changed. I want to hear that things are changing. I am incredibly concerned."

Joanie Rogers, interim division director of the Children's Division, said the department made a request for the system upgrades in 2020, but more pressing requirements and budget constraints pushed it back.

Knodell said he is now working to completely update the department's computer systems, which would incorporate the suggested change from the OIG report.

He said the department has several significant needs that would address various shortcomings within its systems, which he called "woefully outdated."

"We'll obviously have a very, very significant price tag, but hopefully when we're in a position to come to you with that request, that it would be found favorably in the very near future," Knodell said.

Deaton told Knodell he is disappointed the computer upgrades weren't prioritized sooner, pointing out the department hadn't approached the General Assembly about appropriating money for the update.

Deaton said he's heard from other legislators and other committees that the DSS changes will be a priority next session.

The OIG report also raised questions about some of the larger, systemic issues that have been plaguing the department, like compensation and staffing shortages.

State Rep. Hannah Kelly, R-Mountain Grove, said she was concerned about staff being overloaded and performing too many tasks after Rogers said most circuits have staff conducting investigations and doing case work.

Fogle questioned whether the department could do its job if it filled the vacancies among front-line staff or if it would need additional staff to be appropriated next session.

Knodell said filling vacancies and becoming competitive in the labor market with better compensation are the department's top priorities.

"I think that would take us many miles down the road of where we need to go, but that is the first step and I certainly hope that this committee is going to work with us on compensation," Knodell said. "If we simply added positions and aren't serious about compensation, then we've simply put FTEs on a sheet of paper and our kids don't get better service from us."

In addition to looking at better compensation, Rogers said the department has rolled out a distributed work pilot to provide staff more flexibility and is looking at redesigning training, workload capacities and on-call staffing to better prepare and support staff.

The department will also be requesting an estimated 19 additional staff to conduct required background checks on youth residential facility staff and volunteers.

The requirement was created through legislation earlier this year and has led to hiring delays because the department has two staff members conducting the background checks, which are required to be completed before hiring or before the end of the year for existing employees.

Deaton said employee compensation has become a priority in the House, and he hopes to have willing partners in DSS leadership.

"We look forward to coming back and trying to sell you on a pay plan when you take a look at the governor's budget," Knodell said.

Knodell, Gov. Mike Parson's former deputy chief of staff, said the governor's office is looking at DSS compensation in addition to potential pay increases for state government employees across the board.

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