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 votes to require veterans courts in all jurisdictions in Missouri

Every circuit court in the State of Missouri would have to have at least one veterans treatment court in its jurisdiction under a bill approved by the Missouri House.

Representative Dave Griffith (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Treatment courts utilize an intensive program of court supervision, drug or alcohol testing, and rehabilitation to help defendants overcome substance abuse, mental, emotional, or behavioral issues and keep them from re-offending.

Veterans treatment courts specifically focus on those who have served or currently serve in the military.  Many of their needs, including drug testing, utilize the Veterans Administration’s services.

Lawmakers said there is one circuit in the state that does not have a treatment court program.

House Bill 547 would require every circuit court in the state to establish a treatment court division.  For courts in which resources are not available for a veterans court, it would allow defendants who are veterans to have their cases transferred to any court in the circuit.

The bill is sponsored by Jefferson City representative Dave Griffith (R), who served in the Army as a Green Beret.

“When a soldier, a sailor, a marine, or an airman goes into battle, that experience changes who they are, and many of them come out of that experience and that situation different people.  They make decisions they very well would not have made prior to going on the battlefield.  Many turn to alcohol or drugs and because of those choices they can find themselves on the wrong side of the law,” said Griffith.  “The veterans treatment courts throughout the state will give these men and women an opportunity to clear their names, to get a clean record, and give them a second chance at life, but more importantly it will show them that we have not given up on them.”

Griffith said passing HB 547 would help mitigate the number of suicides among veterans in Missouri.

“#22 stands for the number of veterans committing suicide every day [nationwide].  This bill will show our veterans and military that we do care and we want to give them the second chance that they deserve,” said Griffith.

The bill would specify that veterans who had been in combat would be given preference by courts in determining whether to have their cases handled by a veterans court.  That provision was offered by Pleasant Hill Republican Mike Haffner, a retired Naval Officer and decorated combat veteran.

Representative Mike Haffner (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“Let’s face it.  Men were never meant to kill men,” said Haffner.  “Every individual that goes into combat is changed psychologically.  They are never the same again, and the part that’s hard about this is the assimilation when we come back home.  For those that haven’t been in combat they don’t understand, coming into a room like this is not the same.  We’re forever changed … some can cope and some cannot.”

Some lawmakers expressed concerns about having courts prioritize combat veterans ahead of non-combat veterans, but Haffner maintains that no one who could benefit from veterans courts will be turned away.

“Given the triage priorities that they list [in the bill] I cannot think of a situation where any of the circuit courts, especially here in the State of Missouri, where this is going to be an issue given the number of vets that we have and how few of them are combat vets,” said Haffner.

Griffith thanked his colleagues for supporting the bill and said it is a further effort to honor veterans.

“When I was separated from the service my first sergeant told me not to wear my uniform home, but to wear civilian clothes.  As many of us walked through airports either returning home from deployment or separating from the service, we were cursed at, we were spit on, we were called ‘baby killers,’ and the list goes on and on.  Today when I look on Facebook and I see posts of soldiers receiving standing ovations in airports when they are making their way to their planes it brings a tear to my eye.” said Griffith.  “This bill will further support our veterans and military by giving them another resource to help them get the support they need so very badly.”

HB 547 would give courts until August 28, 2021 to establish a treatment court division.  The House voted 149-3 to send the bill to the Senate.

House pushes mental health awareness after death of members’ family friend

The sponsor of mental health legislation said that issue hit close to home for her on the day her bill came to the House floor.

Representative Chrissy Sommer (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

St. Charles Republican Chrissy Sommer said that during her drive to the Capitol on Monday she received the tragic news that the mother of her daughter’s best friend had committed suicide.

“You may have noticed I’m a little shaky and nervous, and the reason is because on my way here today I found out that a friend of mind committed suicide, and I’ve been thinking about her a lot,” said Sommer.  “It really struck me that this [bill] was pulled up today … because it can affect everyone.”

The House gave initial approval to House Bill 108, which would have Missouri join the federal government in making May “Mental Health Awareness Month,” and in making July “Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.”

“I’m thinking of her and I’m doing this in her honor, and I hope that we will pass it … I don’t mean to get emotional … but I hope that we will pass this not only in her honor but in the honor of everyone who has lost someone to suicide,” said Sommer.

Sommer said untreated mental health contribute to things like unemployment, disability, homelessness, incarceration, substance abuse, and suicide.

“Early identification and treatment of mental illnesses have proven to be vital to any recovery process.  Stigma association with mental illness prevents many individuals from seeking the necessary treatment,” said Sommer.

The House heard that there are particular stigmas and disparities within minority communities regarding mental health.

St. Louis Democrat Bruce Franks, who speaks openly about numerous traumas in his life including seeing his brother fatally shot when they were both children, said he has contemplated suicide in the past.  He said there is a stigma in the African American community about getting help and what “mental health” is.”

Representative Bruce Franks (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I talk on the floor about the funerals I’ve gone through and some of the things that I’ve seen, and even a couple of my Republican colleague friends on the other side have been to my district to see some of these traumatic things, so just imagine when folks are going through this each and every day and it plays on you mentally and you never get the help that you need because the people in your community and society sees this as a stigma,” said Franks.

Franks said the legislation is “very important, and it’s not just about an awareness month.  It’s about education and empowering people to let them know it’s okay to not be okay but it’s okay to seek help.”

Jefferson City Republican Dave Griffith said he hopes raising awareness will cause more struggling veterans to get help.

“Many of you may not have heard ‘hashtag-22.’  Hashtag-22 stands for the 22 veterans that commit suicide every day.  It is for real.  These men and women are suffering from PTSD and from many other mental illnesses and having a day or a month that we can recognize them is something that I stand for,” said Griffith.

“The perception of mental illness won’t change unless we act on it, and one way to do this is for us in Missouri to enact the Mental Health Awareness Month,” said Sommer.

With the House’s action on Monday, one more favorable vote would send HB 108 to the Senate.