Sports stadiums yes, children no?
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY - When more than 500 Catholic school sixth-graders last month rallied to draw attention to the need for statewide funding to increase the awareness of special needs adoptions, nobody cheered louder than Susan Cook and Jan Motl.
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Diocesan Catholic Charities officials Jan Motl, left, and Susan Cook say that the adoption program funded by the State of Missouri is dying of neglect.
"It's a crucial issue," said Cook, associate director of Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
"The bottom line is funding, not only funding put out for adoptions, but funding for the core Division of Family Services staff," said Motl, Catholic Charities program director for adoption and services for pregnant women.
Neither Motl nor Cook were able to attend the March 1 rally at Archbishop O'Hara High School. But a Catholic Charities representative was in attendance to lend agency support to the sixth graders.
To both women, who work directly with prospective temporary and permanent families for older children in state care, it is a case of misplaced priorities when the Missouri General Assembly can raise the possibility of spending millions of taxpayer dollars for major league sports stadiums while slashing funds for children in state care.
"It's sickening," Cook said. "Missouri ranks near the bottom in the nation in foster care reimbursement, and the state has custody of these children. A parent who doesn't pay child support can go to jail. But the responsibility the state holds to these children is the same. They have legal custody of these kids."
State government might think it is saving now by slashing funding for approximately 1,200 children in state custody, but it will cost more in the long run, said Motl.
"If we can serve these children appropriately now, we will have fewer adult issues with these children when they grow up," she said. "They will require less expenses later in mental health services and jails, and the justice system won't be as burdened with them."
Motl stressed that Catholic Charities operates two adoption programs. A privately funded program for infant adoption is in great shape, she said. But the state-funded program to provide foster care and permanent homes for older "special needs" children who have been taken out of abusive homes is in serious trouble.
Cook explained that when state government ran into budget problems, one of the first programs on the chopping block was the foster care and special needs adoptions program.
Because those programs had vastly overspent their budgeted allocations, Gov. Bob Holden slashed them by more than half. The local Catholic Charities programs, which provided services under state contract not only with in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, but also within the Dioceses of Jefferson City and Springfield-Cape Girardeau, was forced to close offices and lay off staff.
"When the new administration came in, there were significant cuts, one of which was for the recruitment and training of foster care families," Cook said. "$3 million was allocated for the fiscal year which ends in June. The year before, they spent $7 million."
Cook admitted that much of the overspending came because of services contracted through other agencies without sufficient accountability. But starving all contracted services, including those of Catholic Charities which were working efficiently, is not the way to increase accountability, she said.
"We are very much in support of accountability in state government," Cook said. "Those are my tax dollars as much as anyone else's. But it is also accountability to prioritize and provide for the needs of the most vulnerable people in this state, and they are these kids. They don't have a voice."
Hit hard by the state budget cuts was funding for the recruitment and training of temporary foster homes for children whom courts have taken out of their homes.
This was the very issue that the Catholic school sixth graders raised in their March 1 rally at Archbishop O'Hara High School when they asked eight state lawmakers why the state can spend $8 million to promote the Missouri Lottery, but left unfunded a 2001 bill for advertising for potential new foster homes for children. They asked the lawmakers to commit to a $1 million annual expenditure to increase awareness of the need for new adoptive families.
State Sen. Ronnie DePasco of Kansas City announced at that rally that the state had obtained $900,000 in federal funding for an adoption awareness program. But that money is actually a three-year grant for $300,000 each year, of which an awareness program could be just one part.
Motl and Cook said the federal money is welcome, but it won't go very far.
Meanwhile, they said, the number of foster care beds available throughout the state is shrinking, causing additional placements in the homes that remain. Some of the parents in those homes may be trained to handle certain problems, such as those that arise from physical abuse, but not others. And without money to recruit and train new foster families, the situation will get worse before it gets better.
"When the pool of available homes is lessened, you have multiple children being mismatched in families that are not trained to deal with them. With that, the needs of that child will increase," Cook said. "You grow up in the system, and you have 12 placements in foster homes in a matter of a few years, you will have significant needs. It's a rippling effect, and it is substantial."
"It's a matter of priorities," Motl said. "We feel we can save a ton of money in the long run by dipping into the state's reserves now. But these kids can't vote. And when people look at what is going to be a popular issue, the one thing you are going to look at is who is going to benefit and who can vote."
Motl said it is not only politicians who do not seem to place much priority on neglected and abused children, but society as a whole.
"There is a new term called 'throwaway kids,'" she said. "It's a sad reflection on us as a society that we are not valuing all children. They are in a vicious cycle of abuse, neglect and abandonment. At some point, that cycle needs to be broken."