My Child Abuse and Neglect Joint Committee has taken up the Juvenile Office system this year. We are meeting monthly in Jefferson City through November in an attempt to gain a better understanding of the Office and how it works. Missouri is currently the only State to use this system and though there are many other states that have shown an interest in duplicating it, they have not yet done so. One reason for this is that the Juvenile Office is regulated by the Courts. We have been dealing with challengers that contend that since the Officer is hired and fired by the judges and also prepare their cases; this could be a conflict of interest. This, and other issues are what we are looking at with this series of hearings.
First, to get an idea of what Children's division has to deal with, I want to share some figures with you. Last year there were over 13,000 children in the care of the State. Some circuits grew at nearly 40%. This is a problem that is not going away. Some contend that drug usage, particularly heroin, is the main reason for the huge increases in the cities. Law Enforcement bodies tell me that heroin usage is rapidly growing and that every area will be affected in the near future. This is putting a huge burden on a system that is arguably already understaffed and underfunded. With State revenues growing sluggishly at best, we need to make the best use of the resources we have. The demands are continuing to grow on the Children's Division so streamlining and improving the role of the Juvenile Office seems appropriate.
A Juvenile Officer is appointed in each of the 44 Judicial Circuits by the Judge or Court Administrator pursuant to current statutes. They are responsible for implementing the objectives of the Missouri Juvenile Code as defined by the legislature. Their duty is to balance the interests, rights, and needs of affected parties and children subject to the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court. Their role is to make removal decisions supported by law, provide an additional layer of protection for children, ensure a timely and legally sufficient process and provide balance. All these things are to be done while putting the best interest of the child first and foremost. Sound easy? All I've done here is lay out the most fundamental description of the Juvenile Office. The role that they have in our Children's Division is, in my mind, an extremely important part of curbing the abuse and neglect of Missouri's children. In an attempt to keep up with the ever-changing environment they are forced to work in, the Office is working with us on a system improvement process. They are starting with a comprehensive multi-level and multi faceted assessment. Based on those assessments they will then initiate collaborative improvements with the Fostering Court. Next, they will start setting standards for the juvenile work groups and finally begin cross training with Judges, Juvenile Officers, Children's division personnel and other stakeholders.
I assure you that my committee will be working as closely as possible with the various stakeholders to make the needed improvements to our Juvenile Officer system. It is far too important in the work of curbing child abuse and neglect for us to put off doing what is necessary for them to be able to continue their essential services.
I'll continue to report on our progress throughout the interim.