Veto session: House votes to fund programs fighting child abuse, neglect; Senate disagrees

      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. 

Representative Randy Pietzman (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      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.

      “I have children in my district that are getting ravaged … I’d like to read you the list of the cases but I think it’s just too much.  Children in my district getting raped and made child pornography with them.  It’s going on and we’ve got to stop it,” said Pietzman.

      He said that line item would be enough to get the program started and after 3 years local officials could sustain it after that.

Pietzman said he was approached with “offers” by people who didn’t want him to even propose the override.

      “Screw those guys.  I’m fighting to the end for these kids.  They deserve justice.  This is small piece of pie of our budget but it can do so much good if we get it into the hands of the right people, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

      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.

      “Unlike [the governor] I’m not looking for a photo opportunity saying this is what I’m doing.  I’m doing it for those kids,” said Pietzman.

      The House voted 150-3 in favor of that override.

      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.

Representative Raychel Proudie (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Representative Raychel Proudie (R-Ferguson) said Missouri is having a hard time retaining those workers, partly because of how much they are paid.

      “Some of these workers [are] being spat at, cursed at, threatened  [while] trying to protect the children of this state when they can just go down to the local wizard stand or the local Wal-Mart and get paid more, and deal with less.  We owe them better than that,” said Proudie.

      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.

      Murphy said the Department harmed and lied to those Missourians.  “This year there was $150-thousand put into the budget to do the right thing, and that’s give these people their money back … well the governor, in his wisdom, and I cannot explain why, vetoed this,” said Murphy.  “We have promised these people over and over again that we would do right by them, only to have the rug pulled out from under them.”

      The House supported that override 152-2.

      It also voted 112-38 to override a veto on $700,000 for a Community Improvement District along Business Loop 70 in Columbia.

      These overrides were sent to the Senate, which voted to reject two of them and did not vote on the other two, so the governor’s vetoes stand.

House votes to allow state inspections of religious-based youth homes

      House lawmakers voted this week toward ending abuse of children in residential care facilities managed by religious organizations – abuse that lawmakers called “horrific,” and amounting to “torture.”

Representative Rudy Veit (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      House Bills 557 & 560 would eliminate the exemption from state supervision for such homes. 

      “There’s no background checks, there’s no right to go in and check on the children, there’s no requirement they keep medical records, there was no right to go in and have eyes on the children, and there was absolutely no control over these homes,” said bill sponsor Rudy Veit (R-Wardsville)“These homes, all you had to say was it was a religious organization … and you couldn’t even check into whether it was a recognized religious organization.”

      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.

      She said parents would send their children to these homes, “I think, most of the time, with the full intent of getting a child out of a really desperate situation and getting them the help that they needed.  Unfortunately, that trust was completely violated and these children were tortured.  There’s really no other way to describe it.”

      She and other lawmakers heard in committee hearings from children who had been abused in these homes.

Representative Keri Ingle (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “The things that have been told to me by survivors across the country … described rape, described forcing children to have abortions, described stripping children of their dignity and their self-respect, their belief in God, their belief in love, forced children to fight other children, locked children in closets, forced children to stand in manure and forced children to do hard labor,” said Ingle. 

      “It almost looks like you’re reading something from a script of a horror movie, but it’s not,” said Representative Dave Griffith (R-Jefferson City).

      The legislation would require those homes to provide background checks for all employees; notify the state of their location; and allow Social Services to see children when abuse is suspected. 

It would not allow the state to change a home’s religious teachings or foundation.  Viet said he believes that religious-based youth homes, when run properly and honestly, can benefit children.

“I actually know some children who have been in some of these homes and I’ve talked to judges, and they do a great service, but if we don’t take care of and prevent the bad apples they’re going to ruin it for everyone,” said Veit.

The bill would go into effect immediately upon being signed by the governor. 

      The house voted 148-0 to send it to the Senate. 

House Committee considers lifting statute of limitations in child sex abuse civil cases

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.

Representative Sheila Solon (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

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.

“It make sense that since the statute of limitations has been removed for criminal it should also be removed for civil,” said Representative Sheila Solon (R-St. Joseph), the sponsor of HB 1411. “For us to have a law on the books that has constraints in it on when a victim has to be brave, come forward, and stop fleeing these memories but get in fight mode, isn’t right.”

Solon said survivors who want to sue perpetrators are not just after money.

“Most victims who come forward and file a civil lawsuit, it’s because they’re trying to protect other children.  They want the perpetrator to be held accountable for their actions,” said Solon.

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.

“I knew that I had to file a lawsuit, and for one primary reason; that if Brother Mueller had abused two students in 1969 and 1970 … in 1985 at Vianney, myself, there were certainly other victims between those two time periods,” said Bacon.  “My ability to file a civil suit against the Marianist order and conduct discovery resulted in the ability of many other victims of Brother Mueller to come forward and begin their healing journey.  After I filed suit an additional 80 victims came forward.”

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.

“By placing time limits on a survivor’s ability to seek a civil remedy for their abuse we are placing the burden back on those survivors while allowing the perpetrators to move forward without ever having to take accountability,” said Donelon.

No one testified against HB 1411 while several advocacy groups testified in support of it.  Those included Missouri KidsFirst, represented by Public Policy Director Jessica Seitz.

“It grants more access to the justice system for victims of child sexual abuse.”

The Committee approved Solon’s bill and sent it to a second, where it awaits a hearing.

House approves bill meant to stop school-to-school movement of child abusers

The House has proposed that school districts open up lines of communication with one another to stop employees with a history of abusing students from going from one district to another.

Representative Rocky Miller (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

That is one of the things House Bill 739 aims to accomplish, according to its sponsor, Representative Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark).

“This bill would allow for school districts to contact an employee’s former employers from a list supplied by [The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education].  The schools would be required to disclose the actual violation of the schools’ regulations as it pertains to sexual misconduct with a student,” said Miller.

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 of Hazelwood Democrat Paula Brown’s previous jobs was in human resources in a school district.  She said she was often in a terrible position.

“When someone calls to check a reference the only thing that we can reply with is, ‘We would not rehire them,’ with no explanation further than that,” said Brown.  “This will free up HR directors and assistant superintendents to speak the truth.  It will allow people not to be hired in other districts when they were fired from a different district,” said Brown.

“I think what we’re doing is not only saving children but affording school districts an opportunity not to be sued at the rate they are being sued at this point,” said Brown.

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.

Representative Kathy Swan (R-Cape Girardeau) sponsored that amendment.

“We require background checks on school administrators, teachers, teachers’ aides, assistants, secretaries, cooks, bus drivers, and custodians, but not volunteers,” said Swan.

Representative David Wood (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

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.

Representative David Wood (R-Versailles) said this would close a “loophole” child advocates described to him.

“If the offense would happen on school grounds that’s easy enough to take care of, but when the offense happens off those school grounds, there’s been four cases in the last two years that [investigators have] had a lack of a preponderance of evidence,” said Wood.

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.

Earlier story:  House committee considers legislation to stop abusive teachers from going to new districts

House Committee considers legislation to stop abusive teachers from going to new districts

The Missouri House is looking for ways to keep schools from hiring people known to have sexually abused students while working in other districts.

Representative Rocky Miller and Missouri KidsFirst Director of Public Policy, Jessica Seitz. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

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.

“Kids are put at risk and there’s lifetime consequences for that, ranging from mental health issues to medical issues to just their well-being, and the trauma that they’ve experienced,” said Gerdiman.

Jessica Seitz with Missouri KidsFirst told the House Committee on Elementary and Secondary Education the bill would be another positive step toward protecting children in Missouri schools.

“According to a 2010 GAO report, on average a teacher offender will be passed to three different districts before being stopped,” said Seitz.

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.

“Every organization that serves children, and particularly schools, must operate under the assumption that some people who sexually abuse children may work for them,” said Seitz.  “Organizations that serve children have an obligation to create an environment that is inhospitable to sexual abuse.  These environments must be nurtured from the top with leaders, such as the school board, who understand the risks and actively work to train staff and volunteers, and institute child protection policies.”

Gerdiman said board members will be better equipped to protect children with the additional training the bill would mandate, “so that they are more aware of the signs and symptoms of child abuse; the process of disclosure when a child is ready to talk about what has happened to them; as well as grooming behaviors that adult alleged perpetrators and juvenile perpetrators may use,” said Gerdiman.

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.

“It’s just to make sure that you can’t hide behind the sunshine law if you’ve been abusive towards a student,” said Miller.

Lawmakers on the committee are also considering whether the bill should be broadened to include abuse not directed at students.

The committee will consider the legislation and potential changes to it at a future hearing, before voting on whether to advance it to the full House for debate.

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)

Bill containing several provisions to protect children becomes law

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.

Representative Diane Franklin chairs the House Committee on Children and Families. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Emily van Schenkhof with Missouri KidsFirst called Senate Bill 160 the best piece of legislation to come out of the 2017 regular legislative session.

“We came together as the General Assembly, outside advocates, [and] the governor’s office to pass some really important legislation,” said van Schenkhof.  “It really was, I think, an example of how when we prioritize children we really can come together to make good policy decisions and makes sure we get things across the finish line that make our state safer for children.”

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.

“That was an extremely time-sensitive piece of the bill,” said van Schenkhof.  “Children’s safety could have been at risk if we didn’t have this information in our system.”

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.

“In trafficking cases often times that caretaking role, or that care, custody, and control piece is missing, and so Children’s Division can’t provide the sort of protective interventions that are necessary,” said van Schenkhof.

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.

“Diane Franklin was just a rock star.  She worked so hard on this bill.  She really left no stone unturned.  She really understood that kids’ lives were going to be at risk if we were going to lose these 11,000 records,” said van Schenkhof.

Governor Eric Greitens (R) signed SB 160 into law last week.  The provisions dealing with the definitions of abuse and neglect and with retention of abuse records became effective immediately.

Note:  Emily van Schenkhof’s last day with Missouri KidsFirst was last week.  In July she begins work as the Executive Director of the Children’s Trust Fund.