House members frustrated by Department after report on missing foster children

      Missouri House members aren’t pleased with a lack of answers from the Department of Social Services in the wake of a federal report slamming its lack of response when children in foster care go missing.

Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      The U.S. Department of Health and Senior Services’ Office of the Inspector General report is based on 2019 data and was released last week.  It said the state does not properly report when children are missing and doesn’t do enough to keep them from going missing again, if they are found.

      “I was shocked by the scope of the report but I was not surprised by the content,” said Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R-Arnold), Chairman of the House Committee on Children and Families, which met Tuesday in response to that report.

      That study found that 978 children went missing from state care at some point during 2019.  In looking closely at the handling of 59 cases of children missing from foster care, it found that in nearly half there was no evidence that the state had reported those children missing as required by law.

Department of Social Services Acting Director Jennifer Tidball and Children’s Division Interim Director Joanie Rogers testify to the House Committee on Children and Families (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      The Committee heard testimony from Department of Social Services Acting Director Jennifer Tidball, who said many of the policy issues cited in the report stemmed from a previous administration.  She produced a 2016 memo from then-director Tim Decker that allowed caseworkers to quit some practices and documentation, some of which she says has been resumed since 2019.

      Coleman and other lawmakers were frustrated by what they saw as a “passing of the buck,” trying to blame that earlier administration, and a failure to follow the law and to implement programs the legislature has authorized to help the Division keep foster kids safe.

      “If the tools that have been given by the legislature have not been utilized and if the state and federal laws are not being followed because it’s the policy of the department, what enforcement mechanism could the legislature use to induce you to follow state and federal statute?”

      The top Democrat on the committee, Keri Ingle (D-Lee’s Summit), said Tuesday’s hearing was beyond frustrating.

      “What do we do if our own departments are telling us that they’re not following state and federal law and they’re not following their own policies and they’re not taking us up on additional resources when we’re offering additional resources?”

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

      Coleman said she was troubled that the Department did not today provide much information outside of what was in the federal report and even challenged its findings.  She said the next step will be to hold a hearing focused on possible solutions.

      “We’re going to continue to work and see what pressure we can put on the Department to continue to follow state and federal law.  The committee will continue to hold hearings.  We’ll probably have one more and then we’ll have a report with recommendations and I would think that you’ll see legislation that comes out of this process,” said Coleman.

      After Tidball’s testimony the Committee heard from several child welfare advocates, offering their response to the report and possible responses, however Tidball and her staff left the hearing shortly after she spoke.

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.

Bills would let victims of domestic or sexual violence or stalking get out of leases

When a person is trying to get out of a domestic violence situation one of their needs is a place to live, sometimes for children as well as their self.  If that person is under a lease agreement, property owners are under no legal obligation to release that person.  This could have lasting repercussions both financially and in finding another place to live.

Representative Jean Evans (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bills 243, 544, and 683 Sponsored by Representatives Jim Neely (R-Cameron), Jean Evans (R-Manchester), and Raychel Proudie (D-Ferguson), are aimed at helping such individuals.

“This legislation would go a long way to help victims get a safe place to live,” said Heather Silverman with the National Council of Jewish Women – St. Louis.

Those bills would prevent anyone at risk of domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking from being evicted, being denied tenancy, or violating a lease agreement as a result of that risk.  A person who was a victim or in imminent danger of being victimized would be able to use that as a defense if a landlord takes them to court.  The bills would establish what evidence a landlord must accept as proof of such situations.

Kate Heinen with the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault told the House Committee on Children and Families, “In 2014 … 23,000 women and children were denied shelter [in Missouri] because the shelters were full, and shelters are often full because people arrive in one and then realize that there’s going to be a much longer trajectory before they can access safe housing because of their disrupted rental history, because there’s no laws to protect them.

Representative Raychel Proudie (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“Allowing someone to be resolved of their lease agreement when they show some supporting documentation from a local program agency – an order of protection, a court record, anything that’s listed in the bill – is profound.  It’s huge.  It’s going to save lives,” said Heinen.

Heinen said individuals attempting to escape domestic violence often find it difficult to find a new place to live after facing problems getting out of a former residence.

“Either an eviction judgement on their record as a result of experiencing violence and being seen as a troubled tenant, or their rental history looks spotty because they’re seen as a troubled tenant as a result of experiencing violence, and then it makes it impossible for them to rent in their city or other places in their state,” said Heinen.

Representative Proudie’s legislative assistant, Holly Bickmeyer, told the committee she was 14 when she lost her mother due to domestic violence.  She thinks legislation like these bills could have made a difference in her life.

Representative Jim Neely (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

“I feel like if something like this had been in place to where we would have been able to leave, it’s entirely possible that I would still have my mother today,” said Bickmeyer.  “Speaking as someone who has lived through that, I can tell you how much of a help something like this would have been.”

The committee held hearings on HBs 243 and 544 on Tuesday morning.  There was no opposition voiced.  Daryl Dewe, a registered lobbyist for the St. Louis Apartment Association, joined those testifying in support.

“Our landlords, most of all, we want our tenants to be safe and secure,” said Dewe.  “If that means, in a situation like this, helping them to a safe space more easily, then it’s the right thing to do.”

The bills would allow landlords to impose a termination fee when a tenant or lessee wants to terminate a lease early.

The committee has not yet voted on HBs 243 and 544.

Bill would add info on consent, violence, & harassment to sex education in Missouri high schools

A Missouri representative is proposing that high school students learn about sexual harassment, violence, and consent as part of sexual education.  Her legislation will be heard Tuesday night by the House Committee on Children and Families.

Representative Holly Rehder (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Sikeston Republican Holly Rehder said the idea behind House Bill 2234 was brought to her by students at the University of Missouri who said they wish they had received such an education.  They believe teaching high school students about those subjects could prevent situations that can cause life-changing harm, and Rehder agrees.

“What was so fascinating to me was you have these college students – two girls, is who initially brought it to me – that said, ‘We wish we would’ve had this,’” said Rehder.  “’We don’t know how they were in high school or what their reputation is back home and then we all get lumped in together and we’re at a party, or we’re at an event, or walking to the car, or whatever … you need to know how to speak up for yourself, set those boundaries, and you also need to know how to not cross them.’”

Numerous cases have put sexual harassment, sexual violence, and consent in the public spotlight.  One of those is the case of long-time USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.  He was sentenced late last month to up to 175 years in prison for abusing young female gymnasts.  At least one of the women who gave a victim impact statement before his sentencing has written a letter in support of HB 2234.

Amanda Thomashow tells lawmakers she realized many of those Nassar assaulted didn’t know they were being abused, at least not at first, and trusted the doctor.

She writes, “more than anything I keep coming back to one particular question:  How can we prevent such a tragedy from happening ever again?  I have repeated this question in my head, over and over, searching for a way to save others from similar evils.  I know there are many answers and I know there is no easy solution when it comes to sexual assault.  However, I also know one thing with absolute certainty; we must add consent and sexual violence to basic sexual education curriculum.  We need to equip young people with knowledge to protect and empower them, and House Bill 2234 does just that.”

HB 2234 would expand Missouri law on what must be included in sex education materials so that they cover sexual harassment, sexual violence, and consent.  It would also seek to define those terms in relation to sex education.

It would define “consent” as, “a freely given agreement to the conduct at issue by a competent person. An expression of lack of consent through words or conduct means there is no consent. Lack of verbal or physical resistance or submission resulting from the use of force, threat of force, or placing another person in fear does not constitute consent. A current or previous dating or social or sexual relationship by itself or the manner of dress of the person involved with the accused in the conduct at issue shall not constitute consent.”

HB 2234 defines “sexual harassment” as, “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature, especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate,” and defines “sexual violence” as, “causing or attempting to cause another to engage involuntarily in any sexual act by force, threat of force, duress, or without that person’s consent.”

Missouri school districts are not required to have sexual education as part of their curriculum.  The bill would require that these new areas be included for those that do.

Rehder said she looks at the issue not just as a legislator but as a mother of three.

“I think that’s the prism that we need to look at it through – what would we want for our children?  What do we want them to know and be prepared for before they go into college,” said Rehder.  “Or not college – before they go into the workplace and you have people over you.  I think that these are just very important things to know before you’re thrown out into the world.”

The hearing on HB 2234 is Tuesday at 5 p.m. in House Hearing Room 7 in the Missouri State Capitol basement.

Additional audio:

Representative Rehder said she wants students to learn how to protect themselves and to respect others:

“I want them to know some clear cut signals and how to make those clear cut signals.  I think it makes a lot of sense.  I think it’s a small – doesn’t cost the state anything but could do a world of good.”

House committee considers change to abortion parental notification law

A Missouri House Republican is again asking to require that both parents be notified before a minor in Missouri can have an abortion.

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

Lake Ozark representative Rocky Miller says it’s a matter of common sense, but Democrats argue the legislation could put some young women in danger.

Missouri law requires that a minor seeking an abortion and one parent or guardian of that minor give written consent before the procedure is performed.  House Bill 1383 would require that the parent or guardian giving consent notify any other custodial parent or guardian in writing before the minor gives her consent.  It would not apply in an emergency or for custodial parents or guardians that have been found guilty of certain crimes, are listed on the sex offender registry, are the subject of an order of protection, have had parental rights terminated, or for whom the whereabouts are not known.

Miller first filed the proposal five years ago and related it to his own experience.  His daughter at 15 became pregnant with his granddaughter, who he and his wife later raised.

“I did have a 15-year-old child that got pregnant and by the grace of God they notified me, which was nice,” said Miller.  “If you remember the first time we had this bill five years ago we had testimony from a woman … that said when she was 15 they went and got an abortion … well later her father, it was a married family, found out about it and he looked at her and he said, ‘I just want you to know I would have done whatever it takes if you wanted to keep that child,’ and she said – it was really gut-wrenching testimony – she said that she looks at her three children now and knows that there should be a fourth.”

Democrats including Stacey Newman of St. Louis oppose Miller’s bill, saying its requirement could put teenage girls in danger. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

In a hearing of the House Committee on Children and Families, Democrats said major medical associations have opposed Miller’s proposal each year because its requirement could put teen girls in danger.  They say despite the exemptions in the notification requirement it could force the involvement of a parent who is abusive or otherwise a danger to a pregnant teen.

Kansas City obstetrician-gynecologist Dr. Valerie French told the committee, “The bill could put scared teens at risk to do something that would harm themselves.  This law could be detrimental to teens’ health and safety because research shows that laws like this one can delay access to care and force a teen to take measures into her own hands.”

In two previous years Miller’s proposal has been voted out of the House and approved by a Senate committee, but was not passed out of the Senate.

The Committee on Children and Families has not voted on HB 1383.