Foster reforms aimed at giving more children permanency sent to governor

      The legislature has proposed several measures meant to give more Missouri children a chance to get out of the foster care system and into permanent homes, and to help foster and adoptive parents afford the costs of caring for and adopting children.

Representative Hannah Kelly watches as fellow legislators cast votes for one of the two foster care reform bills she sponsored. (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      House Bills 429 and 430 were agreed to this week and now await action by Governor Mike Parson (R), who lawmakers say has indicated support for them.  Mountain Grove Republican Hannah Kelly sponsored both.

      HB 430 would expand current tax credits for the adoption of Missouri children with disabilities to be available in any adoption, while giving priority to instances involving Missouri children with disabilities.  Kelly said of a program capped at $6-million a year, less than $30,000 was claimed last year.

      She said by allowing a broader offering of this credit, more Missouri children will have the opportunities for permanent families.

      “When people say it should stay to be Missouri children.  Well if a Missouri family wants to adopt a child then that’s a Missouri child in my mind,” said Kelly.  “If you’re a Missouri taxpayer we’re going to support you in your effort to open your home and your heart to children in need.”

      HB 429 authorizes an income tax deduction for expenses related to providing care as a foster parent. 

      It also creates a “Birth Match” program.  It would require the state Children’s Division and the State Registrar’s Office to compare birth reports with information on parents who have been convicted of certain crimes.  When parents have history of the specified crimes, Division personnel will make contact with the family to see if any action is appropriate. 

      This could include seeing whether any crimes are being committed, but Kelly said in a broader sense it is about seeing whether the family is in need of any of the types of assistance the state could facilitate.

      “Birth Match is intended to match the families with the services to prevent a repeat of previous situations,” said Kelly.  “If you can step in and offer services, whether that be parenting classes, whether that be … do you need to be signed up for Medicaid … do you need prenatal care … do you need, OK you need a washer and a dryer.”

      “That is the heart of Birth Match, is to allow government departments to communicate faster … in regards to ensuring the overall outcome is safety of baby and mom and dad and whoever else is in the picture,” said Kelly. 

      HB 429 also increases the age threshold for abandoned infants and children from one year or under to under three years old.  It sets a time frame of six months before a petition of termination of parental rights is considered in cases of neglect by a parent. 

Foster care reform is a priority for House Speaker Rob Vescovo. (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Kelly said by restructuring this and other parts of law, impediments to giving a child a permanent home are removed.

      “The research was showing us that [children] were getting ‘caught in limbo,’ is the best way to put it,” said Kelly.  “This is expected very much to help make sure that kids don’t get stuck in what can feel like forever being hung between, ‘Okay, I know that I’m abandoned by my bio-family but I also need a termination of parental rights process to happen before my family who wants to adopt me can officially be my adoptive family.”

      Kelly credits House Speaker Rob Vescovo (R-Arnold) with making the legislation a priority, which pushed these bills to be the first non-budget measures sent to the governor this year.  She said not only did he make these issues priorities, he bravely, publicly shared his own personal story of having been in Missouri’s foster care system as further evidence of the need for reform.

      “His willingness to tell his story; his willingness to lay it out there and personally exemplify why this matters has been huge,” said Kelly. 

      The legislation received overwhelming bipartisan support.  The final House vote on HB 429 was 127-8; the vote on HB 430 was 142-0.

House Committee advances foster care, adoption supports

      A House Committee has voted to make adopting or fostering children in Missouri easier, with its support for two bills that are early-session priorities for chamber leadership.

      The House Committee on Children and Families unanimously passed House Bill 429, which would authorize an income tax deduction for foster care expenses; and House Bill 430 which would expand the state’s existing $10,000 tax credit for the adoption of children with special needs to any adoption. 

Representative Hannah Kelly (photo: Ben Peters, Missouri House Communications)

      The bills’ sponsor, Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove), said both proposals have been stalled in past years but are priorities of House Speaker Rob Vescovo (R-Arnold)

      “Because of Speaker Vescovo’s leadership we are looking at sending this thing to the House floor, sending it to the Senate right away, and it’s just awesome,” said Kelly.  “Today doesn’t have anything to do with Hannah Kelly, it has to do with Speaker Vescovo’s leadership and people who have gone on before me and plowed the ground.”

The proposed tax deduction for foster care would begin January 1 and continue for six years unless extended by the legislature.  Parents who foster children for at least six months would be eligible for a deduction of up to $2,500, or $5,000 for a couple filing jointly. 

Those who foster for fewer than six months could apply for a prorated deduction.  Kelly said extending help to those foster parents is no less important.

“Sometimes children need a safe place for just a few weeks while mom and dad get a house cleaned, or while they take certain trainings, or perhaps they simply need a temporary place to stay while they find a permanent placement, and so this also allows to be supportive to the foster parents who provide that respite care, that temporary place,” said Kelly.

      Kelly said anything that makes it easier for a child in foster care to be adopted isn’t just good for that child, it makes financial sense for the state. 

In the case of her own daughter, who she adopted last year at the age of 18, “If she would have stayed in the system she would have stayed there until she was 21 … from a financial standpoint … the state would’ve spent $21,000 just as a base amount, before she aged out of the system.”

      Vescovo, who was adopted out of foster care, called on House members last week to join him in expanding the adoption tax credit.

Missouri House Speaker Rob Vescovo (photo: Ben Peters, Missouri House Communications)

       “Together we can make adoption a possibility for many families who may not have the money but have the love and support to give a wonderful life to a person in need.”

      He also asked for members’ support for foster care reforms, including a tax deduction, “which can encourage more Missouri families to open their doors and their hearts to our young people in need.”

      “We know we have more than 13,000 kids in the foster care system and more enter the system every year.  We must take every step possible to give each and every one of these kids an open door of opportunity so they can grow into healthy, productive adults,” said Vescovo.

      With the committee’s action today, those bills will go before another committee and could be heard by the full House next week.

Extensive Foster Care reforms passed in 2018 session set to become effective

The Missouri legislature this year passed a number of provisions aimed at making life better for children in the state’s foster care system.  Legislation that has become law would help children get an education, proper medical care, and ease their transition out of state care.

Representative Jim Neely carried Senate Bill 819 in the House and chaired a committee tasked with examining issues related to foster care. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

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 foster care issues.  That committee and its chairman, Representative Jim Neely (R-Cameron), handled many of these provisions and oversaw combining several of them into one bill, House Committee Bill 11.  Many of them later became part of Senate Bill 819 which was passed and has been signed into law.  The provisions in that bill become effective August 28.

The Director of Missouri’s Office of Child Advocate, Kelly Schultz, has been a foster parent to 17 children over the years.  She said both as a foster parent and as the director, this year has been “huge,” for professionals, families, and most importantly children in foster care.

“Just to recognize what the professionals in foster care and what the foster families go through, and that really talking about it and just going through and looking at just everyday decisions that we make – as the legislative body, as the executive branch and policy – what those decisions are and how they impact the children in care,” said Schultz.

She said this year the legislature took steps toward doing the most important thing changes can do for children in Missouri:  to “normalize” their lives relative to those of their peers.

“Normalizing mistakes, normalizing learning, because that’s honestly what the teen years are about a lot of times, is testing boundaries, learning from that, moving forward, taking chances and risks,” said Schultz.

Schultz described some of the changes the legislature approved this year as “low-hanging fruit;” issues that were easily fixed that could have a major impact on the lives of children and those who work with them.

One example is a provision that allows children in state care to get bank accounts in their own name after they turn 16.  That measure was originally found in a bill handled by Representative Don Phillips (R-Kimberling City).

“I think it really gives the foster children some freedom, it gives them some independence, some responsibility, and they don’t have to have a co-signer or anything like that where most would have to have, and I just think it’s a wonderful opportunity for them,” said Phillips.

House Speaker Todd Richardson in January created the Special Committee to Improve the Care and Well-Being of Young People, which spent much of the 2018 session examining foster care issues. Much of its work became law in SB 819. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Schultz said as a foster parent, that provision doesn’t just help children.  She was once “on the hook,” when a child whose account she was a co-signer on overdrew that account.

Another provision will allow fees for birth, death, or marriage certificates to be waived if those documents are requested by certain state agencies on behalf of a child under juvenile court jurisdiction.

The sponsor of the original legislation dealing with that, Representative Mike Kelley (R-Lamar), said the fees for those documents might be considered nominal to most people, but they can seem insurmountable to children trying to gain their independence.

“It’s hard for most citizens to realize that $10 or $15 to someone who doesn’t have a job and has no way to make income is a huge amount of money and a burden upon those citizens that truly are wards of the state that we should be looking out for and doing what we can to help them be successful,” said Kelley.

Also included in SB 819 are provisions to:

– Allow a child who is homeless or in state care and who has not received all his or her required immunizations to enroll in school, daycare, preschool, or nursery for up to 30 days while he or she begins getting caught up on those immunizations.

– 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.  Current law requires screenings of children in state custody every six months.

– Allow minors to contract for admission to a rape crisis center if qualified as specified in the act

SB 819 also creates the “Social Innovation Grant Program.”  It will create a state program to fund pilot projects that seek to address social issues such as families in generational child welfare, opioid-addicted pregnant women, or children with behavioral issues who are in residential treatment.  Projects receiving grants should have the potential of being replicated to get the most out of state funds and address such concerns.

Earlier stories:

House prepares extensive foster care reform legislation

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)