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.

Advocates: Ease confidentiality rules in child death investigations to save other kids’ lives

Each year hundreds of children’s deaths are investigated by child fatality review panels.  Those panels’ meetings, reports, and records are kept confidential, and state officials say that could be costing more children’s lives.

Representative Hannah Kelly (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The state House is being asked to make public certain information from those panels so it can be studied to identify trends or areas where prevention efforts can be focused, and to look for ways to change state policies to better protect children.

House Bill 877 would make non-identifiable aggregate data on child fatalities public and give the Director of the Department of Social Services discretion on whether to release identifiable data.

The bill is sponsored by Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove), who said when she was presented with the idea she remembered a child fatality that occurred in her district.  A woman who had been struggling with addiction and had only recently been allowed to have her child back in her home rolled over on that child in her sleep and the child suffocated.

“I think in his memory I continue to pursue ways that we can get to the bottom of why our processes and why our rules within our departments lead to unfortunate situations.  How do we get to the bottom of the ‘why,’ so that we can help children have a chance at a great future?”

Emily van Schenkhof is the Executive Director of the Children’s Trust Fund and a member of child fatality panels at the state and local level.  As such, she has reviewed dozens of cases.

“Reviewing these cases – these giant files of the tiny little human beings that deserve lives that were so much better than what they got – changes you as a human being.  When you see this type of suffering it changes you, it affects you, it hurts you, and my only response to seeing that sort of suffering is to say, ‘Geeze, we can do better.’” Van Schenkhof told the House Committee on Children and Families.  “These situations are going to teach us something and we are going to learn from it and we are going to protect other children … and so this bill is a reflection of how we can get better at looking at the data around child fatalities so that our state can get better at preventing child fatalities.”

Van Schenkhof told the committee she would like to for example, create a map of child fatalities that might reveal a concentration of them in a given part of Missouri.  Then efforts to lower child fatalities could target those areas.  Under the current confidentiality restrictions on that data she can access the data to create such a map but she can’t share it with anyone, rendering it useless.

“The Children’s Trust Fund, we’re a foundation, so we would like to be able to issue grants to communities that have higher rates of child fatalities.  Well, we can’t do that because we can’t release any of the information, so the counties that have some of the highest rates don’t even know they have the highest rates,” said van Schenkhof.

Van Schenkhof said it’s also difficult for people in positions such as hers to keep track of what information they learned from investigations, which they can’t talk about and could be in violation of the law if they do; and what information they learned from the news or other public sources.

Kelly Schultz is the Director of the Office of Child Advocate.  She also supports the bill, but stressed to lawmakers the importance of making sure that no data could be released that could identify specific cases.

“If there is only one type of fatality that occurs in a county, releasing that information about that one fatality, even if we don’t release a name, would certainly release identifiable information, and that’s not what we’re after,” said Schultz.  “What we are after is talking about trends and patterns both at a state level and at a regional level.”

Schultz said rules must be designed so that the Director of DSS can weigh each case.

“I don’t want to harm surviving siblings, I don’t want to mess up criminal trials, and I’m afraid the more prescriptive we get, the harder it is,” said Schultz.

Though part of the goal is to use aggregate data to scrutinize state policies, Kelly said the effort is not about criticism.

“I don’t ever want to negatively reflect on the Department as much as I want to stress the importance that we constantly have bold and courageous conversations about what we do to make sure that our guidance from the state level is protecting the children who are in state’s care,” said Kelly.

The committee has not voted on the bill.

House endorses new abortion provider regulations; sends bill to the Missouri Senate

The Missouri House has passed a Senate bill that proposes new restrictions on abortion.  The House made several changes to the bill, so it goes back to the Senate for consideration.

Representative Diane Franklin carried Senate Bill 5 in the House during the legislature’s second extraordinary session of 2017. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The bill would allow the attorney general to prosecute abortion law violations without first involving local prosecutors; repeal a St. Louis ordinance that bars discrimination in housing and employment against women who have had an abortion, use birth control, or are pregnant; and require annual, unannounced state inspections of abortion facilities, among other provisions.

“The bill that we received from the Senate, we thought, was a good framework but it did not really specifically meet the governor’s call, so we re-put in provisions that helped to provide for the health and safety of women,” said Representative Diane Franklin (R-Camdenton), who carried Senate Bill 5 in the House.

Democrats argue the legislation is not about women’s health and safety, saying it is about making it more difficult for women to get abortions in Missouri.

“For the entire last week the only word I’ve heard was, ‘abortion,’” said Representative Deb Lavender (D-Kirkwood)“It’s actually a scam that we think – we’re saying – that we’re protecting women when actually all we’re doing is putting additional hurdles in their way for them to access healthcare.”

Franklin said a key provision for her is language that would require that all tissue removed after an abortion is sent to a pathologist, rather than a sample as is required now.  A pathologist would have to account for all tissue and note any issues.  The Department of Health would follow up any inconsistencies with an investigation.  It would also report annually to the legislature all information it gathers regarding fetal tissue handling.

Franklin has carried various forms of such language going back several sessions, after a series of videos emerged alleging that Planned Parenthood was selling fetal tissue after abortions.

“I think that especially important that I worked on have been the fetal tissue portion of that – the tracking of that – so that we have the assurance that it is indeed going where it should be going and that our department is able to keep track of that,” said Franklin.

The bill also aims to bar laws that would interfere with the operations or speech of alternatives to abortion agencies.  Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove) says those agencies do a lot to help pregnant women.

“They offer pregnancy testing; ultrasounds – I’ve heard many, many, many stories directly from young mothers who … were in a place where they didn’t have any other options.  They needed alternatives and they needed help, and coming back to me, in particular, and saying, ‘I saw my baby.  I saw my baby move,” said Kelly.

Democrats are critical of information given out at alternatives to abortion agencies, saying it is medically inaccurate and skewed toward discouraging a woman from having an abortion.  Republicans say the agencies give women information with which they can form their own decisions.

Representative Cora Faith Walker offered an amendment that would have required quarterly reporting from alternatives to abortion agencies, but it was voted down. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Ferguson Democrat Cora Faith Walker also questioned the effectiveness of those agencies.

“In total there are about 70-plus alternatives to abortion agencies that exist here in the state of Missouri and yet we still have issues with infant mortality rates and maternal mortality rates that surpass national averages,” said Walker.  “In specific areas of Missouri where there seem to exist several alternative to abortion agencies that are supposed to be providing healthcare and other services to women as an alternative to abortion, we still have these very, very high infant mortality rates.”

The legislature returned to Jefferson City in a special session to consider abortion legislation at the call of Governor Eric Greitens (R).  Democrats used debate of SB 5 to criticize the governor for what they said was a stunt meant to help him politically.

“Make sure we’re not letting a governor bring us back to special session for political gain,” said St. Louis City Democrat Bruce Franks, Junior“I know how passionate you (Republicans) all are about this issue.  I would never take that away from you.  I know how passionate we (Democrats) are.  But we’re not paying attention to how we’re being played … Now just because this is one of our particular issues that we feel so strongly about doesn’t mean it’s right that we’re here.”

Republicans called the session an important opportunity for the state to reaffirm a commitment to protecting unborn children and making sure women receive proper care from abortion providers.

House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff), when asked about lawmakers’ attitudes toward the governor, said, “I think we’ve been focused here in the House on issues, and I think the issues that we’ve worked on back in regular session and through these two special sessions are issues that are of particular importance to the House, and they’re of particular importance to members of the Senate as well, so the fact that we’ve got a governor that’s willing to engage on these issues has been positive and helpful.”

Representative Jay Barnes (left) talks with House Speaker Todd Richardson. Barnes offered several amendments that contributed to the final form of Senate Bill 5. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Democrats note courts have ruled against laws that placed similar restrictions on facilities that provide abortions, and say this legislation will likely be thrown out as well.

“You already know this is going to straight to litigation once it goes into effect, and you also know the [financial cost to the state of defending it],” said St. Louis Democrat Stacey Newman.

Richardson believes if the bill the House passed is challenged in court, it will be upheld.

“This is obviously a very highly litigated area of the law.  It will continue to be a highly litigated area of the law in every state, but I’m very confident that the state of Missouri, if this law is challenged, will prevail,” said Richardson.

The state Senate is expected to debate the House’s changes to SB 5 in the coming days.

Work underway in House in special session on abortion issues

The state House has started work on the second extraordinary session of 2017; this one called by Governor Eric Greitens (R) for the legislature to deal with issues related to abortion.

Representative Hannah Kelly (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Republicans say the special session is an important chance for the state to reaffirm a commitment to protecting unborn children and making sure women receive proper care from abortion providers.  Democrats say it is about attacking women’s healthcare in the face of recent court decisions.

Representative Kathy Swan (R-Cape Girardeau), who has a nursing background, is sponsoring House Bill 3, which would change the laws regarding the conditions and care at abortion providers.  She said it is based in part on violations of medical procedures and protocols that have occurred at those facilities.

“Such as expired drugs, or single-use drugs that were still there – single use drugs obviously are to be utilized on a single patient and then discarded – dusty equipment, rusty equipment, that sort of thing,” said Swan.  “That’s what I have been saying for the last four to five years is that those standards need to be maintained regardless of the procedure, regardless of the facility.”

Swan’s bill would require facilities that provide abortions to prove that doctors performing abortions are physicians licensed in Missouri; to be subject to rules at least equal to those for ambulatory surgical centers; and be subject to unannounced on-site inspections at least once a year.  HB3 would also create the misdemeanor crime of “interference with medical assistance,” for preventing or seeking changes in medical care to a patient.

Democrats including Stacey Newman (D-St. Louis) note the Supreme Court struck down a Texas law regarding regulations of abortion providers in that state, and a court has placed an injunction against a similar law in Missouri.  She argues that the additional regulations Swan and others propose will also prove unconstitutional.

“This is up to a court to decide, but that’s again another waste of time and money that we’re wanting to pass more things that are really going to fit under that same purview,” said Newman.

Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove) has filed House Bill 9 that she said aims to protect pregnancy resource centers and maternity homes from undue discrimination and ensure protection of women’s healthcare.  She is also concerned additional abortion clinics could open in St. Louis thanks in part to a law passed by St. Louis earlier this year.

“If we don’t put a stop to it, it will be in two words an ‘abortion sanctuary,’ that we will be responsible for and the blood will be on our hands because we didn’t do anything to protect the lives that have the promise in the Declaration of Independence of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” said Kelly.

Representative Crystal Quade (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Democrats defend the St. Louis statute as preventing discrimination in housing and employment against women who are having or have had abortions, are pregnant, or use birth control.  Springfield Democrat Crystal Quade said her constituents view that less as an issue of being for or against abortion, and more about local governments being able to govern.

“If my city council members and our mayor, or by a vote of the people, determine that something for our city is best, the fact that the legislature comes in and will look at a specific city and a specific thing that their people have decided is best for them and say, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ is worrisome,” said Quade.  “I think that we have a real concern – I know I do – with just the separate branches of government and if we’re actually following what we should be, and I think that goes to the governor’s call as well – how he was so very specific to what statutes he wanted us to look into.  I personally feel like he was legislating through that call.”

The House has held a committee hearing Wednesday on some of its legislation dealing with these and other abortion-related issues, but has not met as a full body.  Several House members say it will seek first to take up any legislation the Senate is successful in passing and debate whether pass that.

The House is anticipated to take up the Senate’s legislation next week.