Back when he was a Guardian ad Litem for foster children in Greene County’s juvenile court, Andy Hosmer often supervised visits between children in foster care and their biological parents.
Those visits would go down in what he described as a “crappy” room with ugly carpet on the fifth floor of the state office building in downtown Springfield.
“It’s not good for kids,” he said of those types of visits. “It’s not good for parents to put them in an unnatural room that they’ve not been in, have somebody watching them and then for them to have a good bonding experience with their kids.”
At the time, Hosmer didn’t question why supervision was needed.
“I figured there was probably some policy or court directive or something that says this is how it has to be done,” Hosmer said. “Turns out, it doesn’t. It turns out that it has to do with how much ability the Children’s Division worker has, how much time they have in their day.”
Now that he’s the judge, Hosmer is a big proponent of unsupervised visits when possible.
As he puts it: They don’t need to be supervised unless they need to be supervised.
“There is nothing written anywhere that says you got to start out with supervised visits,” Hosmer said. “Let’s assume they love their kids. And let’s assume that 99.9 percent of them would never intentionally harm their kid. So if you kind of start with that, then you can have a lot more frequent contact.
“If you do that, the research says you’re going to reach reunification,” he added. “And the research also says that the best outcome for kids is reunification, if we can do it.”
Heather Boisvert’s young daughters wound up in foster care a few years ago as she struggled with substance use disorder, domestic violence and homelessness. Her story illustrates the hard work required of parents seeking to be reunified with children.
Prior to the creation of the Family Connections program, Greene County bio-parents and their children in foster care were limited to having their visits in public places like libraries and parks. The center provides a supervised safe space in a home-like setting.
Hosmer was appointed Greene County Juvenile Judge by former Governor Jay Nixon in 2014 and took the bench in January of 2015. Prior to that, he was in private legal practice and a Guardian ad Litem primarily in juvenile court.
Guardian ad Litems are appointed by the court to represent the best interest of the minor children in contested custody proceedings.
Hosmer spoke with the Daily Citizen about the importance of reunification of foster children and their biological parents (when it’s safe), how COVID-19 impacted the foster care system in Greene County and what he sees as potential solutions to the many challenges the system faces.
Reunification is the goal
Missouri statutes specify certain situations in which reunification is not an option, including when the parent or anyone living in the home has been found guilty of sexual abuse or serious physical abuse.
And reunification sometimes isn’t an option when the biological parent does not have the mental capacity to be a fit parent or they are unable to overcome their substance use disorder, Hosmer said.
In Hosmer’s court, if a bio-parent doesn’t have the mental capacity to care for the child, he tries to look for a co-parenting option — perhaps they could live with the bio-parent’s mother or father. And then the grandparent could help raise the child, while still having that child’s bio-parent in the house, too.
Hosmer said he tells parents working to be reunified with their children that he wants to see two things: stability and sobriety.
Typically with cases involving substance use disorder, domestic violence or mental health issues, Hosmer said the state Children’s Division tries to find a safe relative to place the child with while the parent gets the services they need to “be able to be safe, appropriate parents.”
“They often develop safety plans after they’ve done (an) investigation,” Hosmer said. “Let’s divert the child to grandma and you agree to get some mental health treatment or some drug treatment and (the team) won’t involve the courts.
“Generally when we’re involved — when the court is involved — is when that hasn’t worked out or some emergency exists, and we can’t really work with the family,” he continued. “Then we bring the child into care.”
The Family Support Team (comprised of the Children’s Division caseworker, legal counsel for the parent(s), juvenile officer, legal guardian for the child, the Guardian ad Litem and Court Appointed Special Advocate or CASA) will connect the parent with substance use treatment or mental health services. If there are issues related to unsanitary living conditions, the team will help the parent access services to address gaining those skills.
In 2021 (through November), a little more than 40 percent of Greene County cases that were closed ended in reunification. About 37 percent ended in termination of parental rights and adoption, and about 15 percent ended in guardianship, Hosmer said. There were also a few kids who aged out of foster care.
The amount of time a child is in care varies, Hosmer said. Sometimes the child might be immediately put back in the home on what’s called a “permissive placement.” Other times the child is never allowed to go back home.
It usually takes about 18 months to two years to close a case.
“When we first get the case and for upwards of a year, all we’re working on is trying to reunify the kiddo with the parent,” Hosmer said. “Then at some point, the team makes the decision that may not occur.
“And so I have a concurrent plan which says, ‘Okay, we’ll still work for reunification, but we’re also going to pursue termination of parental rights and adoption,” he said. “Sometimes parents — that lights a fire under them and they say, ‘Wow, I might really lose my child.’ And so they really work and do what they need.”
As long as the biological parent is still “moving forward” with the program and whatever treatment or therapy is needed, Hosmer said he’ll continue to keep working with them toward a goal of reunification.
COVID-19 having impact on system
While the overall impact of the COVID-19 lockdown had on the foster care system remains unknown, Judge Hosmer spoke about the impacts he saw happening here in Greene County.
In those early days of the pandemic, Hosmer said he was first worried about the Greene County Family Treatment Court and other treatment programs, all of which had to go virtual.
“And if you’ve ever done anything virtually, it’s crap at best,” he said. “It is better than nothing, but it’s just not very good.”
Another concern was that the Children’s Division stopped doing in-person visits between biological parents and their children in foster care. Those, too, went virtual.
For families in the foster care system, doing video calls instead of in-person visits made it difficult to maintain that bond between biological parents and their children.
The pandemic also negatively impacted residential homes for kids in foster care. For a time, parents couldn’t visit their kids in residential homes. And then when they opened back up for visits, Hosmer said the homes have been plagued by COVID-19 exposures and quarantines.
Cases increasing, foster options shrinking
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Greene County has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of children coming into foster care — and has seen a related increase in cases of abuse and neglect.
In that time frame, the county has seen an 83 percent increase in cases of physical child abuse and a 157 percent increase in child sex abuse cases, according to Laura Farmer, executive director of CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of Southwest Missouri.
To complicate matters, Farmer said the pandemic caused many foster families to quit over health concerns of bringing a child into their household or because they couldn’t stay home when schools went virtual.
“We kind of have this perfect storm of an increased number of children coming into foster care, and the lower number of families choosing to foster,” Farmer said.
While cases of physical and sexual abuse have significantly increased, Farmer said chronic neglect continues to be the most common reason kids come into foster care in Greene County. Chronic neglect might be something like extreme unsanitary living conditions with trash and feces on the floor and no space to walk, Farmer explained, and there might be an infestation of fleas or bedbugs.
In those situations, caseworkers usually offer some type of services to prevent the child from entering foster care.
“I think it’s really important that we have a lot of empathy for the people that come into contact with child welfare services,” Farmer continued. “If we come to these situations trying to understand them rather than judging them, we get a lot further with our families.”
Systemic issues need to be addressed
Hosmer acknowledges that child welfare services in Missouri are far from perfect. Even within his own courtroom, the judge said he has made mistakes.
“I’ve been wrong. I’ve sent kids home I shouldn’t have sent home. I’ve put kids in foster homes that I shouldn’t put in that foster home. I’ve taken them out of residential (homes) when I shouldn’t have taken them out,” he said. “It’s hard. It’s hard for me. I think it’s hard for attorneys.
“This is an absolute gray court,” Hosmer said. “There is not one bit of white or black. There is not one easy answer in any of these cases.”
In Hosmer’s view, Greene County needs more accessible and high-quality mental health services for both adults and children. Even as a judge, Hosmer sometimes has a hard time finding inpatient beds — especially for men.
Telling a bio-parent who is working to get their kids back that they can’t get into an inpatient treatment facility or get a mental evaluation or treatment until weeks or months down the road isn’t a solution at all, Hosmer said.
“That shouldn’t happen,” Hosmer said. “It should be if I need a mental health evaluation that I should be able to walk down today or the next day and get that evaluation.”
Sometimes parents bring their kids to the juvenile court system because of the child’s behavior issues. The parents themselves can’t easily access the resources to help the child, but the court system can, Hosmer explained. However, that means using a lot of taxpayer dollars.
“Parents are doing all they can. The kids are just out of control,” Hosmer said. “They come to us and say, ‘We can’t control these kids, and we can’t access the resources to get the care the kid needs.’
“Why can’t you back that up and let (parents) access the resources without the court being involved? Because when the court gets involved, you’ve got a Children’s Division worker paid by my and your tax dollars,” Hosmer said. “You’ve got a parent’s attorney paid by your tax dollars and my tax dollars, a Guardian ad Litem, the deputy juvenile officer, juvenile attorney — all these people paid by tax dollars.”
Another challenge Missouri faces is the need for more quality foster homes with foster parents who want to work with the biological parents to reunify the family, Hosmer said.
“Sometimes you have these foster parents that want to foster and adopt, which I understand. They want to take a baby from the hospital, and they want to adopt that baby,” he said. “And we have to tell them, ‘No, what you have to do is be willing to work really hard with Mom to get the kid home to Mom. Because that’s the best thing for the kid and for Mom.’
“We need to train them that they’re more of a partner with parents,” he said. “They are a resource for the parent. They’re not somebody who’s going to just hope to adopt this kid. But they are somebody who says, ‘Hey, I’m going to actively work with you, Mom or Dad. And I’m going to work really hard to try to get these kids back home to you.’”
Hosmer believes addressing larger systemic poverty and housing issues would alleviate many of the referrals to the juvenile justice system.
For example, kids often come into care because their homes are unsanitary and/or unsafe.
“The house is falling down. It doesn’t have electricity. There’s exposed wires. There’s rats and mice,” Hosmer said. “And these are rental properties in Springfield, so you have a landlord legally renting a house that we’re taking kids out of. That’s a strange thought.
“These people have a lease agreement. They’re paying the landlord, and the house is so bad that law enforcement is saying, ‘You cannot have these kids here,’” Hosmer continued. “And the city — what are we doing?”
Of nearly 740 youth who are currently in foster care in Greene County, Hosmer estimates probably 700 are from families that are in poverty or are very close. (Hosmer knows this because he is the person who appoints an attorney to represent parents when they cannot afford to hire one.)
“They are all pretty much in a position where they are struggling month to month, which adds to all the stressors,” he said. “They work two jobs, and that’s really hard to be a parent that is attentive to their kids.
“There’s just a lot of systemic issues,” he added. “If you kind of worked on those, you’d kind of ease that burden on the courts.”