Prefiled bill aims to make domestic violence victims’ escape from abusers easier

A bill prefiled for the 2020 session of the Missouri General Assembly aims to make it easier for victims of domestic violence to escape abusive environments.

Representative Chris Dinkins (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 1300 would allow individuals, with the assistance of domestic violence shelter staff, to get free copies of birth certificates.

“Individuals who flee the abusive situation often times don’t have the opportunity to grab important documents that they may need later on.  A lot of times they just leave with the clothes on their backs,” said Representative Chris Dinkins (R-Annapolis), the sponsor of House Bill 1300.

“In order to help them get back on their feet the [resource centers] have to try to help them get jobs and get their kids in school, and all these things require a birth certificate,” said Dinkins.  “If you don’t have your driver’s license you need a birth certificate to get your driver’s license.  If you don’t have a bank account, you need some form of identification to set up a bank account … nowadays businesses do direct deposits for paychecks, so you need a bank account in order to receive your payment.”

The Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence’s Public Policy Director, Jennifer Carter Dochler, said such vital documents provide abusers with another way to control their victims.  Withholding them can make it more difficult for a victim to leave.

“Other times we see an abusive partner intentionally destroying those materials.  They know it’s going to be a difficulty for an individual so they intentionally destroy them,” said Carter Dochler.

Having access to birth certificates would be key to ensuring that victims escaping abusive situations don’t have to return to them.

“Once they do take that important step to get away from [an abuser] we need to do everything that we can to keep them from falling back into that trap,” said Dinkins.

Domestic violence shelters in Missouri have been covering the cost of birth certificates for clients who need them but those shelters have limited resources and the cost is becoming an issue for them.

Dinkins offered similar legislation in the 2019 session and it nearly passed, despite being introduced on the last day for filing bills.  Lawmakers heard then that the $15 cost for a new copy of a birth certificate can be prohibitive to victims, who often have little or no money and need that very document in order to get a job.  It is a further burden when they must pay that $15 for each child under their care.

Dinkins said what slowed the bill’s progress in 2019 its estimated cost to the state, which she said was grossly overestimated.

“[The state is] already producing these birth certificates, it’s just the fact that we would no longer be charging the organizations to have them produce these … but they were saying it was going to take two to eight new full-time employees, and I don’t understand how it would take eight new full-time employees to do something that they’re already doing,” said Dinkins.

Dinkins said helping people escaping abuse get back into the work force would further offset any cost the bill could create for the state.

The 2019 bill passed out of the House and out of a Senate committee but was not voted on by the full Senate.  Dinkins is optimistic that this year’s earlier start means the legislation has a better chance of reaching Governor Mike Parson (R).

The legislative session begins January 8.

House prepares extensive foster care reform legislation

An increased focus on issues concerning foster care in Missouri has resulted in a bill containing 11 different reforms meant to make life better for children who are in, and who leave, that care.

Representative Jim Neely chairs the House Special Committee to Improve the Care and Well-Being of Young People and sponsors HCB 11, a comprehensive foster care reform bill. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) in January created the Special Committee to Improve the Care and Well-Being of Young People to focus on improving the state’s child welfare system.  That committee is chaired by Cameron Representative Jim Neely (R), who selected 11 of the bills assigned to it to be combined into House Committee Bill 11.

Neely, a doctor, said improving the lives of children has been his priority since a young girl who’d been abused came into his office about ten years ago.

“This young lady said a lot of adults had let her down, and so I chewed on that and thought about life and what I needed to do, and that was probably the seed that caused me to run for office a few years later,” said Neely.

Neely said some of the things HCB 11 would change in Missouri law are “quick” or “simple” fixes that could have significant impacts, especially in situations in which foster children have been described as, “falling through the cracks.”

“There’s an incident in the Kansas City area where a child was over in Kansas and if we’d been able to share information with the State of Kansas we might have been able to prevent a horrid situation over there,” said Neely.  “We’re just trying to make [things] a little more user friendly and get the foster parents a little more safety net.”

HCB 11 includes language that would update background checks on foster families so that the Children’s Division would know immediately if a foster parent is charged with a crime that would disqualify him or her from being a foster parent.  Current law only allows checks every two years.

Representative Sonya Anderson (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

That portion of the bill came from House Bill 1944 sponsored by Representative Sonya Anderson (R-Springfield).

“House Bill 1944 would allow the Department of Social Services to utilize the RAPBACK program, which is the Record of Arrest and Prosecution, and so it’s a more instant update if a foster care parent or someone who resides in the house has been charged with a crime,” said Anderson.  “We want to make sure that [foster] children are in the safest environment as possible.”

HCB 11 would also expand assessment and treatment services for children in foster care.  It would require such services for all children in foster care – currently it is required only for those under the age of ten – and would require that those services be completed in accordance with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ periodicity schedule.  Currently children are screened every two years.

The original sponsor of that language is Representative Lauren Arthur (D-Kansas City), who said it would ensure that children in foster care receive more appropriate care, and the comprehensive screenings will in turn save the state money by catching medical conditions earlier and aiding in preventative care.

Representative Lauren Arthur (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

“This would change the requirements so that every child in foster care is receiving these kinds of screenings, not just children under the age of ten.  Additionally it means that they’ll receive more appropriate care, so according to the experts – the American Academy of Pediatrics – our children in foster care will go to the doctor according to their recommendations and that schedule as opposed to the legislature saying they have to go every two years,” said Arthur.  “For older kids in foster care, often when they are pulled out of school more than their peers it adds to a feeling of stigma – they feel like they’re different from their classmates – and we certainly don’t want them to feel different or have to go to the doctor more than anyone else just because they’re in foster care.”

Another portion of HCB 11 comes from House Bill 1862 sponsored by Representative Phil Christofanelli (R-St. Peters).  It would enable investigations of abuse of children in foster care in Missouri when it happens outside of the state.

Current law prevents Missouri Social Services workers from investigating reports of abuse of Missouri children in foster care if the abuse doesn’t occur in Missouri, and prevents them from communicating with counterparts in other states about abuse or potential abuse.  Christofanelli said his bill would remove those barriers and fix what he called a, “bureaucratic technicality.”

“This is just eliminating some loopholes that have resulted in some unfortunate situations in the past and making sure that we have full communication across state lines to protect kids,” said Christofanelli.

He said HCB 11 is combining a number of efforts to fix situations in which lawmakers are told, all too often, that children are being “left behind.”

Representative Phil Christofanelli (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

“It’s one of the most rewarding parts of being in the legislature and it’s such an easy fix.  It’s shocking to me that this hasn’t been done yet because we’ve seen case after case where problems like this arise across state lines,” said Christofanelli.  “Our kids are our greatest asset here in Missouri and if there’s anything that we can do to help keep them safe then we’re going to do it as the legislature, so I’m honored to be a part of that process.”

Some lawmakers expressed concerns with the portion of the bill because other states might release information about abuse claims – particularly unsubstantiated claims – that Missouri would not release.  They expressed a desire to see that concern addressed before the bill could become law.

The House is prepared to vote on whether to send HCB 11 to the Senate.  The bill is broadly supported, including by Columbia Democrat Martha Stevens, who sits on the Special Committee to Improve the Care and Well-Being of Young People.

Stevens said she’s glad to be on the committee but says it has more work to do even if HCB 11 becomes law, “particularly with children aging out of the foster care system, so I’m hopeful that in the interim, with stakeholders and advocates and experts and folks on both sides of the aisle we can bring forward more solutions next year to help address issues around foster care and support the Missouri youth that are aging out of foster care.”

      Other parts of HCB 11 would:

– Provide free birth certificates to children in foster care, making it easier for them to become independent (found in House Bill 1470 sponsored by Representative Mike Kelley, R-Lamar)

– Allow more time for a case management plan to be developed for a child entering foster care (found in House Bill 1637 sponsored by Representative Neely)

– Allow foster children aged 16 years and older to open a checking or savings account with the consent of the Children’s Division or juvenile court, giving them the ability to cash paychecks and better access to jobs  (found in House Bill 1715 sponsored by Representative Don Phillips, R-Kimberling City)

– Make closed under law any records regarding placement of children into foster care or kinship placements, and specify who can access those records and when (found in House Bill 1966 sponsored by Representative Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters)

– Allow a child who is homeless or in the custody of the Children’s Division, but the whereabouts of his or her immunization records is unknown, to be enrolled in school for up to 30 days while efforts are made to find those records, and if needed, another 30 days after that for the child to get caught up on immunizations (found in House Bill 2139 sponsored by Representative Lynn Morris, R-Nixa)

– Define when juvenile courts have jurisdiction over a child under 21, streamlining situations in which a child is in a safe situation but juvenile court involvement is interfering with the family (found in House Bill 1728 sponsored by Representative Bill Lant, R-Pineville)

– Establish guidelines for educating children in court-ordered group homes or institutions for delinquent or neglected children (found in House Bill 2625 sponsored by Representative Lyle Rowland R, Cedarcreek)

– Create the “Trauma-Informed Care for Children and Families Board” to encourage cooperation between agencies that deal with children and utilize trauma-informed treatment programs (found in House Bill 2217 sponsored by Representative Cora Faith Walker, D-Ferguson)