House member wants to favor family placements over foster care

      A House member wants the state to put more effort into finding family members with whom to place children who are taken into state custody, before placing them with strangers.

Representative Dave Griffith speaks with Alysa Jackson (left) and Sarah Bashore (right) with the Central Missouri Foster Care and Adoption Association (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Jefferson City representative Dave Griffith (R) thinks the state Children’s Division could do more to that end, and some agencies who support his bill agree with him.

      “We want to go 50 deep if we have to, to try to find somebody that is going to be a good match for that child, that is going to be able to provide that child with a safe and healthy place to live,” said Griffith.  “It really comes down to what is going to be best for the child or the children, and trying to keep children and families together rather than separating families.”

      Griffith said he has heard from a number of constituents who have their own, “stories and their own personal nightmares that they are dealing with when their children are taken from them and trying to get their children back and … having their children separated and not being able to go to relatives, or going to wrong relatives and it being injurious to their future, and many of them, to their health.

      “Trying to work inside the system and trying to find a way that we can do what’s best for the children of Missouri as a whole, that’s really the genesis behind bringing this bill forward.”

      Griffith’s House Bill 1563 would require the Division to make “diligent searches” for biological parents when a child enters state custody.  In the case of an emergency placement, the Division would search for grandparents.  If they can’t be found or aren’t fit, it would then look for other relatives for placement within 30 days. 

      Members of the House Committee on Emerging Issues asked Griffith whether his proposal would simply place burdens on overworked, underpaid, members of an understaffed agency.  Griffith agreed those are concerns for the Division, “but I think that there are resources that are available to [the Division] which are not being utilized to the fullest.  I think if we can utilize these agencies … those are a resource that they can use … and we already have them under contract.”

Sarah Bashore with the Central Missouri Foster Care and Adoption Association told the committee that her agency, serving 24 counties, helped find family members for 34 children in state care in the last two quarters of the last fiscal year.  She said it could help even more children, but the Children’s Division hasn’t being asking.

      “We don’t receive the referrals like we should, for being a contracted agency.  They’re paying for our service but they’re not always using it,” said Bashore. 

      She believes as employees with the Division leave and are replaced, those new hires simply don’t know that her agency and others like it are available, or how they can be used.

      She said similar agencies cover other parts of the state, “So we would just ask that we continue doing our work and, if at all possible, if they do some of the work as well then I think, combined, that we’ll see a lot less kids in stranger foster care.” 

      Bashore said her agency and others are simply more capable and have more resources than Children’s Division for doing the kinds of searches that Griffith’s bill would require, and with compelling results. 

      “The search engines that we have … it’s not as time consuming as one might think,” said Bashore.  “With our program that we run and are contracted with, it’s called 30 Days to Family, we’re able to find at least 80 relatives if not more.  Our average this last year has 115 relatives, and we do that within 30 days.”

      Bashore added, there could be an additional benefit to the state if more children were placed with family members rather than in foster care.

      “For a child to remain in foster care it’s more than $25,000 a year,” said Bashore.

      The committee has not voted on Griffith’s proposal.

Foster reforms aimed at giving more children permanency sent to governor

      The legislature has proposed several measures meant to give more Missouri children a chance to get out of the foster care system and into permanent homes, and to help foster and adoptive parents afford the costs of caring for and adopting children.

Representative Hannah Kelly watches as fellow legislators cast votes for one of the two foster care reform bills she sponsored. (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      House Bills 429 and 430 were agreed to this week and now await action by Governor Mike Parson (R), who lawmakers say has indicated support for them.  Mountain Grove Republican Hannah Kelly sponsored both.

      HB 430 would expand current tax credits for the adoption of Missouri children with disabilities to be available in any adoption, while giving priority to instances involving Missouri children with disabilities.  Kelly said of a program capped at $6-million a year, less than $30,000 was claimed last year.

      She said by allowing a broader offering of this credit, more Missouri children will have the opportunities for permanent families.

      “When people say it should stay to be Missouri children.  Well if a Missouri family wants to adopt a child then that’s a Missouri child in my mind,” said Kelly.  “If you’re a Missouri taxpayer we’re going to support you in your effort to open your home and your heart to children in need.”

      HB 429 authorizes an income tax deduction for expenses related to providing care as a foster parent. 

      It also creates a “Birth Match” program.  It would require the state Children’s Division and the State Registrar’s Office to compare birth reports with information on parents who have been convicted of certain crimes.  When parents have history of the specified crimes, Division personnel will make contact with the family to see if any action is appropriate. 

      This could include seeing whether any crimes are being committed, but Kelly said in a broader sense it is about seeing whether the family is in need of any of the types of assistance the state could facilitate.

      “Birth Match is intended to match the families with the services to prevent a repeat of previous situations,” said Kelly.  “If you can step in and offer services, whether that be parenting classes, whether that be … do you need to be signed up for Medicaid … do you need prenatal care … do you need, OK you need a washer and a dryer.”

      “That is the heart of Birth Match, is to allow government departments to communicate faster … in regards to ensuring the overall outcome is safety of baby and mom and dad and whoever else is in the picture,” said Kelly. 

      HB 429 also increases the age threshold for abandoned infants and children from one year or under to under three years old.  It sets a time frame of six months before a petition of termination of parental rights is considered in cases of neglect by a parent. 

Foster care reform is a priority for House Speaker Rob Vescovo. (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Kelly said by restructuring this and other parts of law, impediments to giving a child a permanent home are removed.

      “The research was showing us that [children] were getting ‘caught in limbo,’ is the best way to put it,” said Kelly.  “This is expected very much to help make sure that kids don’t get stuck in what can feel like forever being hung between, ‘Okay, I know that I’m abandoned by my bio-family but I also need a termination of parental rights process to happen before my family who wants to adopt me can officially be my adoptive family.”

      Kelly credits House Speaker Rob Vescovo (R-Arnold) with making the legislation a priority, which pushed these bills to be the first non-budget measures sent to the governor this year.  She said not only did he make these issues priorities, he bravely, publicly shared his own personal story of having been in Missouri’s foster care system as further evidence of the need for reform.

      “His willingness to tell his story; his willingness to lay it out there and personally exemplify why this matters has been huge,” said Kelly. 

      The legislation received overwhelming bipartisan support.  The final House vote on HB 429 was 127-8; the vote on HB 430 was 142-0.