Many of the foster-system reforms have helped, but some have hurt

Dominic James should have been nearing his 12th birthday by now.

He should have been in middle school.

He might have grown out of his habit of waving at every passing car when he was outside.

Wrestling with his father would no longer be cool.

He might still love to pray, but probably not in the way he did as a 2-year-old. Back then, he’d grab peoples’ hands, bow his head and start speaking gibberish, imitating the prayers of family members.

Dominic died at the hands of his foster father in 2002. He was shaken to death.

His biological parents spent the last months of his life fighting to save him. Now his father, Sidney James, fights to make sure Dominic isn’t forgotten.

While he was alive, Dominic’s biological parents repeatedly asked that Dominic be taken out of the foster home after they grew suspicious of abuse — especially after a hospitalization for seizure-like symptoms.

But Dominic was left there.

His death just under 10 years ago upset the community and triggered dozens of reforms to the child welfare system in Missouri.

From foster care to court hearings, protocols to policies, the Dominic James Memorial Foster Care Act turned the state system on its head.

That was in 2003.

Greene County Commissioner Harold Bengsch was on a task force in 2007 that reviewed the circumstances of Dominic’s death and analyzed whether the package of law changes bearing his name was making a positive difference.

Bengsch was no stranger to the details of the boy’s death. As a member of the county’s child death review panel, he had been part of a major inquiry into the 2-year-old’s death in 2002.

Five years later, Bengsch was tasked to re-examine each heart-wrenching detail again.

“It was literally like reliving a bad dream,” Bengsch said.

The panel — the Missouri Task Force on Children’s Justice — did a systematic analysis of the Dominic James laws, looking at how it had been implemented and how the workers and volunteers on the front lines viewed the changes.

Many were positive, the final report shows. Many thought the changes the law enacted were overdue.

“Overall, it is fair to say that (the Dominic James law) has been broadly implemented, and for the most part, appears to be having a positive effect on children and families,” the conclusion of the task force’s report said.

The task force made 14 recommendations overall, and while many of them supported strengthening the measures put in place, there were some concerns over implementation and long-standing issues, as well as questions about some measures going too far.

“All respondents suggested that the State does not provide sufficient funding for the many services needed to ensure a safe and healthy environment for every child,” the conclusion of the task force’s report said.

That, said Darrell Moore, the prosecutor who handled Dominic’s case, hasn’t changed much.

“Part of any real substantive change, you have to get real staff and better pay” for Children’s Division workers, said Moore, the former Greene County prosecutor.

“We say we value kids? You have to put your money where your mouth is.”

Barbara Brown-Johnson, the executive director at the Child Advocacy Center in Springfield, said the law bearing Dominic’s name has had positive effects — better checks and balances in the child welfare system, stronger communication in family support team meetings and a growing community awareness of child abuse.

But one provision enacted in the 10 years since Dominic died brings mixed reviews.

In the 2007 review, it was noted that investigators were concerned with the higher standard of evidence required to remove a child from a home versus previous standards.

But, the report noted, it was too early to say whether requiring a preponderance of evidence was a good or bad thing.

The Child Advocacy Center lobbied against the higher standard before it became law, saying it would hurt kids. Brown-Johnson said the fears have been realized.

“We’re all seeing and saying the same thing,” she said of CACs across the state. “It’s not good for kids.”

Brown said many CACs are seeing cases that would have been enough evidence for removal of the child before the law change — but now, under the higher standard of proof, are not.

“Now that can’t be done, and they’re coming back through the system multiple times,” Brown-Johnson said.

And that’s only if child advocates are lucky enough to see the kid again. Many times, Brown-Johnson said, a kid learns that he or she isn’t believed and just stops telling about abuse.

“Let’s look at how we fix it versus who can we blame,” she emphasized.

“We need a change here.”

Moore said the law has brought small changes that have amounted to big improvements, including programs like Isabel’s House Crisis Nursery.

But bigger reforms — the kind it will take to bring down child abuse and neglect rates — will have to result from a bigger movement, Moore said.

“Dominic James caught attention because it caused a fervor here,” Moore said.

He said grass-roots groups have to pull together and demand change. He said groups already exist that are committed to child welfare, but membership is needed.

“We’re plugging away, but we need more people,” he said.