Legislative package addresses domestic violence, trafficking

      Missouri legislators passed a package of measures intended to protect victims of sexual and domestic violence and trafficking before the 2022 regular session drew to a close on May 13.  Senate Bill 775 contained language sponsored by several House members, and now awaits action by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Hannah Kelly (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “It’s our big legislative win for this session,” said Jennifer Carter Dochler, who was the legislative liaison for the Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence during the regular session. 

      The bill was handled in the House by Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove), who was glad to see it reach the governor’s desk despite issues in the legislature that created challenges for all legislation this year.

      “At the end of the day the process that our founding fathers set out caused it to be that we were able to come together and accomplish something good despite our differences and that is a beautiful thing that everybody needs to walk away remembering should always be our highest priority.  You’re not going to find a better [issue] to do it on than this.”

      Kelly said of particular importance to her, personally, in SB 775 is the language that establishes the “Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights.”  This seeks to make sure victims know their rights regarding the gathering of evidence and related medical exams; access to incident reports; and protections from intimidation and harassment by an attacker. 

      Kelly said someone important in her life is a victim of rape and, “The provisions in this bill, I believe, would’ve brought justice for this person in a swifter manner.”

      The Bill of Rights portion is meant to, among other things, give some clarity and guidance to victims, who often find themselves traumatized and with no knowledge of what to do or to whom to turn.

All [that a victim knows] is a really horrible thing has happened that nobody ever dreams will happen to them,” said Kelly.  “The heart and soul of it is protecting victims and providing stronger protections and providing education … and what greater cause to unite behind than educating and empowering victims in these horrible situations to know what their rights are and to know the pathway by which they can appropriately seek justice.”  

      SB 775 also clarifies definitions in Missouri law regarding “sexual contact” and “sexual conduct.”  Representative David Evans (R-West Plains) said he dealt with at least one case, during his 28 years as a judge, in which unclear definitions regarding contact with minor victims hindered prosecution.

      “Taking ambiguous law or badly written law and making it clear is important clearly for the victims of crime but also clarifies, which is required in criminal law, exactly what the crime is,” said Evans.  “None of us can be convicted of a crime that’s ambiguous.  That’s protection under due process … it’s good to have specific law especially when you’re dealing with a very serious felony.”

Representative David Evans (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      SB 775 would specify that no persons younger than 18 will be prosecuted for prostitution, and if located by law enforcement while engaged in commercial sexual acts, they will be considered a victim of abuse and referred to the Children’s Division and juvenile officers to receive help.  It also eliminates the requirement that a person under 18 and charged with prostitution must prove they were coerced to avoid conviction.

      These were provisions found in legislation sponsored by Representative Ed Lewis (R-Moberly), who said the laws regarding these individuals needs to be focused on getting them help. 

      “A lot of times a minor can be in that lifestyle and not even know that they’re being trafficked, not even know that they’re being abused.  They think, ‘Well no, I’m doing this of my own free will,’ but they’re not.  They’re being abused and used by some adult for their own gain, and we have to get them the help they need to help them to understand that this is not right,” said Lewis.  “Instead of looking at these people who have come to rescue them as rescuers they can look at them as the enemy and we have to make sure that they get the help that they need so they understand what their outcome should be and how to get back to what we would call a normal life free of abuse.”

      Other related sections deal with prosecuting those who attempted to engage in sexual acts or pornography-related offenses with individuals under 18. 

      The bill also contains language sponsored by Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) dealing with orders of protection.  It would state that a person with an order of protection against them cannot skip a court date regarding that order and then plead ignorance to knowing it was still in effect.  He and Carter Dochler say this defense has often been successful for abusers who would violate an order and then say they didn’t know it was in place because they didn’t attend a hearing. 

      Roberts has often said that this and other proposals he has filed stem from his time in law enforcement – including as Joplin’s police chief and the director of the Department of Public Safety – and times in his career when he couldn’t help a victim because of how the law was written. 

      “Sometimes the law doesn’t serve the victim and sometimes, frankly, the process to provide due process to the person that’s accused ultimately re-victimizes the victim, so it’s been very frustrating to me throughout my [law enforcement] career.  Now I’m in a position to do something about it.”

      Along that same line, Roberts said a provision in SB 775 that is important to him is one that allows victims to testify via video rather than have to appear in court for a domestic violence proceeding. 

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Roberts says too often, a victim is afraid to proceed with prosecution for fear or retribution by their abuser.  This provision addresses that fear; specifically that requiring a victim to appear in court creates an instance in which their abuser will know where and when to find them. 

“If you read the newspapers you will frequently see where a domestic violence case was dismissed because the victim didn’t show up to testify.  I can’t tell you how many times that’s because they were afraid to show up but I guarantee you it’s a significant part of the number of people who don’t show up, and why.”

      With all these issues, legislators have to craft language that protects victims but also allows for due process for those who are accused.  Evans believes with SB 775, Missouri gets closer to finding the right balance between those considerations, “and again that’s one thing I really enjoy doing, is balancing the rights of those that are charged but making it absolutely clear to protect the victims of the crimes as well.  I think we’re getting there.”

      The House vote that sent SB 775 to the governor was 141-0.  Carter Dochler said the Coalition is, “very grateful and really excited [that] at a time where there has been so much turbulence on different issues that everybody could really come together and find agreement on items that would make things better for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, or some other related judicial proceedings.”

SB 775 includes several other provisions, including those that would make it a crime for any coach of minors to abuse a minor, whereas currently law speaks only to high school coaches; extends protections against the release of a victim’s personal information to include their personal email address, birth date, health status, or any information from a forensic testing report; and further restricts when the prior sexual conduct of a witness or victim in a sexual offense case may be inquired about in a legal proceeding.

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 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.