A group shot of the folks who came to the Child Abuse and Neglect Collaborative's Go Blue Kick-Off. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

A few somewhat surprising trends are happening within the child welfare system in Greene County.

For some time the average number of Greene County children and teens in foster care has been more than 700 at any time. 

“We’ve revised that number down a little bit,” Greene County Chief Juvenile Officer Bill Prince said. “We have 669 kids in care. That’s still too many. But that number is going down and that is a good thing.

Chief Juvenile Officer/Family Court Administrator Bill Prince says that reunification of families in Greene County is higher than in many other counties across the state. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

“We are seeing the number of referrals to our office going down,” Prince continued. “We are seeing petitions that we file to remove kids also going down.

“I don’t know necessarily that there is less child abuse and neglect going on. But I know Children’s Division and other partner agencies are able to get in with these families and provide meaningful and helpful services to them before there is a necessity for court intervention.”

Child abuse and neglect awareness campaign kicks off

Prince made these remarks at the Child Abuse and Neglect Collaborative’s Go Blue event Wednesday morning at the Springfield Art Museum. April is National Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Month and Go Blue is a community-wide awareness campaign. 

More than 60 people attended the event, mostly professionals who work in the field.

Another trend Prince spoke about — one that prompted a round of applause — is the percentage of foster children being reunified with their biological families is increasing. 

In 2007, Greene County’s reunification rate was 25 percent. 

“That’s not very good,” Prince said. “That means there are other permanency outcomes like termination of (parental) rights, guardianship, the kiddo maybe aging out of the system, things of that nature.

“In 2022, that has increased to 45 percent permanency of reunification. And I looked at our case closures as of the end of February of this year, and we are sitting at 61 percent. That is a credit to everyone sitting in this room.”

Kids are spending less time in foster care

Prince had more positive news to share. According to data collected by his staff at the Greene County Juvenile Office, the length of time kids are spending in foster care has decreased. 

Anthony Labellarte with FosterAdopt Connect told the audience not to underestimate the power of listening. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

In 2017, the median length of time a youth would spend in foster care in Greene County was 1.87 years. In 2022, that was down to 1.47 years. 

“That is still way too long, but at least the arc is pointing downward instead of upward,” Prince said. “These numbers are all a credit to the collaborative nature of the child abuse and neglect system in this community.”

Agencies represented at the Go Blue event included Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Southwest Missouri, Children’s Division, Council of Churches of the Ozarks, FosterAdopt Connect and members of the Community Partnership of the Ozarks’ Child Abuse and Neglect Collaborative (CAN) — to name a few. 

Bikers Against Child Abuse were one of the presenters at the Child Abuse and Neglect Collaborative’s Go Blue Kick-Off. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

Springfield Mayor Ken McClure presented a proclamation thanking the Child Abuse and Neglect Collaborative for their work and declared April as Child Abuse and Prevention Awareness Month.

According to the most recent Community Focus Report, child abuse and neglect is a red flag issue in Greene County. The Child Abuse and Neglect Collaborative is a group of local stakeholders who work together to prevent child abuse. 

The Go Blue kick-off event wrapped up with members stepping outside to “plant” blue pinwheels — the symbol of child abuse prevention and intended to be a “sign of hope.”

How to help?

Laura Farmer, executive director of CASA of Southwest Missouri, suggested the following ideas for anyone interested in helping.

Become a CASA volunteer. CASA volunteers serve as advocates for children in the foster care system. CASAs complete 30 hours of training (15 hours in classroom, 15 hours online) and volunteers learn what it means to be a CASA, about the court and child welfare system and how to connect with a youth who has been traumatized. CASAs are assigned to one foster care case, either an individual child or siblings. CASAs visit with their child at least twice a month and attend Family Support Team meetings and court hearings. To learn more about becoming a CASA, visit casaswmo.org or call 417-864-6202.

Considering fostering. There is an urgent need for foster families and for families who are interested in providing respite care for kids in foster care. Respite care would be providing weekend care or temporary care for the child when their foster parents are going out of town or just need a break. To learn more about this, call the Children’s Division at 573-522-1191 or email fostercare@dss.mo.gov.

Donate to organizations that serve and support children and families within the child welfare system. FosterAdopt Connect is a nonprofit organization that offers multiple programs to serve foster families, foster children and youth who are aging out of the system. FosterAdopt Connect is also home to Sammy’s Window, a clothing, hygiene products and food pantry for foster families and young people who recently aged out of foster care. To learn about the many ways to support this organization, visit fosteradopt.org

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers housing, homelessness, domestic violence and early childhood, among other public affairs issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald