The Missouri House voted Wednesday to override Governor Mike Parson’s (R) vetoes of several spending proposals in the state budget, including one aimed at stemming the sexual abuse of children in Lincoln County.
The Senate did not concur on those overrides and allowed the governor’s actions to stand, and those proposals to fail.
House members including Lincoln County representative Randy Pietzman (R-Troy) took to the floor expressing anger and frustration that Parson rejected $300,000 to fund a 3-year pilot program that would’ve hired investigators, a prosecutor, and staff to address an increase in sex offenders in the region.
Pietzman directed his criticism squarely at the governor, saying this was a plan he and others in the county worked for years to develop. The governor has said that a federal grant program can be used to address this issue but Pietzman says that will not work.
The chamber also voted 151-3 to reverse the governor on a $2-million item that included 3-percent pay raises for caseworkers and supervisors in the Children’s Division. These employees deal with abuse, neglect, and other issues facing children in the custody of the state.
On another vote, the House voted to restore funding for court costs to the owners of certain wedding venues. St. Louis Republican Jim Murphy said these owners were years ago told by the Department of Revenue they did not need to pay sales tax, but years later the Department sent them bills for tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes. Eventually everything was paid back to those owners but the court costs.
Lee’s Summit representative Keri Ingle (D), who filed an identical bill, said Missouri is one of the only states that doesn’t oversee religious-based youth homes. Because of that, bad actors have been coming here and then seeking out children with behavioral issues, mental issues, or whose needs weren’t being met.
The Missouri House is working early in the 2020 legislative session on a bill to remove the statute of limitations on civil actions stemming from child sexual abuse.
The legislature in 2018 lifted the statute of limitations on criminal prosecution of such cases, but the limit on civil cases remains. It only allows civil actions to be brought before the plaintiff turns 31; or within three years of the discovery that an injury or illness was caused by childhood sexual abuse. House Bill 1411 would eliminate that provision, but would not allow the filing of civil suits in cases for which the statute of limitations has already expired.
The House Committee on Children and Families heard from Bryan Bacon, who was abused in 1985 by a priest who was the assistant principal at Vianney High School in St. Louis. Bacon’s memories of the abuse resurfaced after the statute of limitations, then still in place, prevented a criminal prosecution, but he was able to file a civil suit. He did so after learning that the priest had other victims, and after officials denied any knowledge of abuse.
Julie Donelon, president of the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault (MOCSA) in Kansas City, told lawmakers survivors of child sexual assault often repress memories of the event only to recall them when they are older and better able to deal with the trauma. She said survivors should be allowed to file civil suits at any time to benefit other survivors, but also to offset the costs that can come from dealing with abuse – costs that often fall on the survivor and the state.
The legislation has the support of various child advocacy groups, who told lawmakers that right now, schools cannot share such information about former employees. This often allows individuals with a history of abuse to find jobs in other districts and to abuse more children.
One provision added on the House Floor would require criminal background checks of anyone who volunteers with a school district, if that person will have regular or one-on-one contact with students or access to student records.
Another piece added by the full House extends the definition of those who can be found guilty of abuse to include any person who developed a relationship with a child through school, even if the abuse did not occur on school grounds or during school hours.
The bill adds two-and-a-half hours to the training required of new school board members, which would be focused on identifying signs of sexual abuse and potentially abusive relationships between adults and children. It would also require an hour of refresher training, annually.
Finally, the bill requires schools to offer students trauma-informed, developmentally appropriate sexual abuse training for grades six and above. Parents who don’t want their children to receive that training could choose to opt-out of it.
The House voted 150-4 to send the bill to the Senate.
The Missouri House is looking for ways to keep schools from hiring people known to have sexually abused students while working in other districts.
House Bill 739 sponsored by Lake Ozark Republican Rocky Miller would require full disclosure between districts about former employees, and require a district to contact any district or charter school a person previously worked for, for background information.
Cara Gerdiman, Executive Director of Kids Harbor Child Advocacy Center, said with such requirements not already in place, some abusers are able to impact more children’s lives before being caught.
The bill would add 2.5 hours of training focused on sexual harassment to what is required of new school board members. Returning school board members would be required to take at least one hour of refresher training annually.
Seitz said that increased training is one of the most important pieces of HB 739.
The bill would also require annual, age appropriate sexual harassment training for students in grades 6 and up. Some lawmakers questioned whether the legislation should include an option for parents to opt out of that training for their children.
HB 739 would specify that exemptions to Missouri’s open records law, or “Sunshine Law,” would not allow a district to withhold documents on a person if they relate to a confirmed violation of policies against abusing students.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
– 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)
Lawmakers and children’s advocates are praising the signing into law of legislation with several provisions meant to help the state better care for children, including those who have been abused or trafficked.
Emily van Schenkhof with Missouri KidsFirst called Senate Bill 160 the best piece of legislation to come out of the 2017 regular legislative session.
Van Schenkhof said one of the most important pieces of SB 160 prevented the destruction of some 11,000 records related to cases of children that were abused but the perpetrator could not be identified. An appeals court ruling put those records in jeopardy.
SB 160 was carried in the House by Representative Diane Franklin (R-Camdenton). She said the ability to retain such records allows investigators to detect patterns in cases of abuse or neglect.
“The first time that, perhaps, it’s reported or it becomes known to the department, the child may be only three months old and it’s just been identified that abuse has taken place. If we’re not able to retain those records, then let’s say they’re two years old and there’s abuse and we’re not able to see that there’s a pattern in that child’s life of who they’re with that is resulting in harm to the child,” said Franklin.
Another key provision in SB 160 changes the definition of child abuse and neglect to include trafficking. Van Schenkhof said under state law, the ability for the state Children’s Division to get involved in a case hinged on a perpetrator having care, custody, and control of a child.
Franklin said the provision to change those definitions was “paramount.” It also makes available to Missouri more federal money, and aids in prosecution of both state and federal cases by aligning Missouri’s definition with that of federal law.
SB 160 also establishes the Foster Care Bill of Rights, to establish in law how foster children will be treated and how their rights will be protected. Another provision allows children entering foster care to be placed with people who are not related to, but have a close relationship with, the child or the child’s family – otherwise known as “kinship placements.”
SB 160 also extends through 2023 the existence of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect.
Van Schenkhof praised the work done by Franklin on this legislation.