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More than 100 children in limbo with no new money to expand St. Louis foster care adoption program

More than 100 children in limbo with no new money to expand St. Louis foster care adoption program

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JEFFERSON CITY • Foster care advocates are hoping Gov. Jay Nixon will release funding to replicate successful, St. Louis-based programs that accelerate adoptions for foster care children in central Missouri, where more than 100 children are still stuck in the system.

“In order to protect our shared priorities like public education, college affordability and mental health, a number of new and expanded programs will have to be pared back or put on hold,” Nixon said this month while announcing the cuts.

But supporters argue that while the Democratic governor had to withhold money to balance the budget and make up for slow revenue growth, cutting resources for the state’s adoption services will cost significantly more in the long run.

Extreme Recruitment is a program that aims to get foster care children adopted in 12-20 weeks, focusing on children that are typically the most difficult to place: older children between the ages of 10 and 18, large groups of siblings trying to stick together, minority children or children with special needs.

A similar program, 30 Days to Family, helps locate a foster child’s family or kin within 30 days of entering the system, for quick placement with close relatives.

Program creator Melanie Scheetz, executive director of the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition in Missouri, said it costs about $5,000 per Extreme Recruitment case — but compared to $5,000 each year to keep that child in state custody, that’s a bargain.

The effort started small in St. Louis, but after seeing success, the programs were replicated in Kansas City and Springfield, Mo. It’s also been replicated in Virginia, California and a province in Ontario, Canada.

For 102 children in the Jefferson City and Columbia area, it’s a waiting game without the $300,000 originally set aside for the new programs.

“There are very few programs in child welfare that save money,” Scheetz said. “This program is not a Band-Aid, it’s a solution, and it’s a solution that is cost-effective.”

DeAnna Alonso, executive director of the Central Missouri Foster Care and Adoption Association, has turned to an online fundraising campaign to bring in some money, but $300,000 is a lofty goal.

It’s a bad time to cut money from foster care programs, she said, since the state has more children in its custody than ever, something she attributes to poverty and the state’s opiate crisis, both of which can render parents unable to care for their children.

Using data from the Missouri Department of Social Services, Alonso estimated it would cost the state nearly $800 a month to care for each of the 102 children who would have benefited from the programs — and that’s a conservative estimate, she said.

“We were ready to do our part,” Alonso said. “Foster care is temporary. It isn’t supposed to be permanent.”

Also at issue are scholarships for parents who adopt foster children with special needs, to help them come to St. Louis and undergo intensive trauma and attachment training. And that’s where it gets even more personal for Scheetz.

For years, Scheetz didn’t know how to help the daughter she’d adopted out of foster care. Her mental health was in jeopardy for reasons even top doctors and experts couldn’t quite pinpoint, leading her to violently act out, run away from home and eventually drop out of school.

After multiple hospitalizations, doctors eventually recommended residential treatment for reactive attachment disorder, an illness often stemming from instances where very small children aren’t cared for properly, which can lead to trust issues and an inability to form attachments.

It’s not a particularly common illness, but it’s one that can be difficult to diagnose and manage, Scheetz said.

One resource to help parents learn more about the disorder is the training provided at the ATTACh conference in St. Louis this coming September. With $120,000 in scholarships paid for by the state, advocates had hoped to send 80 needy parents from all across Missouri to the event.

“I’ve got parents dying to go because they just don’t have any answers,” Scheetz said.

Scheetz contends that the state could save thousands through this kind of preventive training. It may cost $120,000 to train 80 parents, but it cost more than $180,000 to put her daughter into a treatment center, she said, a bill the state will have to foot.

By law, the state must provide adoption subsidy benefits as part of a jointly sponsored state-federal plan to incentivize the adoption of foster children with special needs.

One Missouri treatment center in particular offered an evidence-based developmental therapy to treat reactive attachment disorder, and doctors recommended it highly for Scheetz’s daughter.

But it cost more than the state was willing to approve, and Scheetz pursued court action, eventually winning in an appeals court that ruled there was no other facility in the state that could have provided the same standard of care for her daughter’s diagnosis.

The court ruled in her favor in May 2015, but Scheetz is still waiting for the money.

As for her daughter, she’s now 19. Thanks to the therapy, she’s doing well, and just recently got her cosmetology license, Scheetz said.

“We are thrilled to be in partnership with the Children’s Division. And we’re so grateful to the legislature for appropriating this kind of money,” she added. “Now we just need the governor to do his part and release it.”

Nixon has vowed to restore cuts in the 2017 budget if revenue grows more quickly than anticipated.

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St. Louis Post-Dispatch political reporter.

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