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)

Democrats propose multi-pronged attack on opioid abuse

Missouri House Democrats say the fight against opioid abuse is about more than passing a statewide prescription drug monitoring program.  They today unveiled a slate of legislation that would attack the problem by addressing a number of other issues.

House Democrat Leader Gail McCann-Beatty and Representative Gina Mitten speak about their caucus’ multi-bill approach to attacking opioid abuse in Missouri. (Photo; Chris Moreland, Missouri House Communications)

“The opioid disorder crisis is multi-faceted,” said House Democrat Leader Gail McCann-Beatty (Kansas City).

Democrats continue to support passage of a statewide prescription drug monitoring program to track the use of prescription narcotics.  Such legislation has advanced farther through the legislative process in each of the past few sessions, but fallen short of passage.  Last year St. Louis Democrat Fred Wessels sponsored such legislation that was combined with a bill sponsored by Sikeston Republican Holly Rehder and fell just short of final passage.  Both representatives will sponsor such legislation again this year.

In addition, Democrats have filed bills that would require pharmacies to post information about methods and locations for the safe disposal of unused medication; require for medical professionals with prescribing authority at least four hours of training on the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs and recognizing addiction in patients; require the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services to mirror federal regulations for prescribing opioids for chronic pain; require insurance coverage of medication assisted treatment and remove insurer-proposed barriers to addiction services; establish a sterile needle and syringe exchange pilot program; require the Show-Me Healthy Babies program to cover substance abuse treatment for women up to one year post-partum; and expand the use of CBD or hemp oil to include being used as a pain management alternative for those with a history of opioid abuse.

“Substance disorders need to have an all-of-the-above approach and what we’re proposing here is just that.  We’re not only talking about PDMP.  We’re talking about a number of other options; tools that should basically be put in the toolbox of not just the medical community but our entire community,” said Representative Gina Mitten (D-St. Louis).

Mitten is sponsoring the bills that deal with safe disposal of abused prescription medication and additional training for prescribers.

Missouri is the only state in the nation without a statewide prescription drug monitoring program.  Many counties in the state are participating in a program initially launched in the St. Louis region, and Governor Eric Greitens (R) signed an executive order creating a tracking program for some prescription information handled by one benefits provider.

The legislation discussed today by House Democrats is for the 2018 legislative session, which begins January 3.

Task Force on Dyslexia issues recommendations for dyslexia screenings of Missouri students

A Legislative Task Force on Dyslexia has completed its work and released recommendations for having Missouri public school students screened for dyslexia.

Representative Kathy Swan (left) listens as Kim Stuckey, Director of Dyslexia Specialists at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, discusses the report of the Legislative Task Force on Dyslexia. (photo; Chris Moreland, Missouri House Communications)

The Task Force’s report to legislative leaders and the governor recommends that all students in kindergarten through grade three be screened for dyslexia and related disorders beginning in the 2018-19 school year.  It also recommends that students who have not been previously screened, and who have been identified as “struggling” in literacy, be screened.

The Task Force was chaired by Cape Girardeau representative Kathy Swan (R), who said early identification of reading difficulties is key to helping children get the education they need.

“By identifying and addressing this reading failure, students will not only be successful in school but successful in life.  If our children do not learn to read they will, and cannot, read to learn,” said Swan.  “This small investment today will have long-term benefits for not only students and families but for the economic and social benefits of our communities and for our state.”

It is also recommended that schools require two hours of in-service training in assessing reading difficulties.  Currently schools are required only to offer such training.

Swan said it is also important that Missouri colleges’ and universities’ teacher education programs address dyslexia characteristics, identification, and intervention.

Task Force member Erica Lembke chairs the Department of Special Education at the University of Missouri.  She said she is excited about what the recommendations could mean for teacher education programs.

Erica Lembke, chair of the Department of Special Education at the University of Missouri, comments on the report of the Legislative Task Force on Dyslexia. (photo; Chris Moreland, Missouri House Communications)

“It’s critically important that this content is delivered and infused in our teacher preparation courses at the colleges and universities in Missouri,” said Lembke.

The Task Force’s report says the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) should recommend a process for universal screening that includes a multi-tiered support system.  It stresses that districts should make clear to parents that a positive screening for dyslexia is not a diagnosis.

The Task Force was created with the passage of House Bill 2379 in 2016.  It required that public schools in Missouri screen for dyslexia and related disorders, and established that DESE would develop rules for screenings based on the Task Force’s recommendations.

Earlier story:  Legislative Task Force on Dyslexia holds first hearing, Rep. Swan selected as chair

House refuses additional reductions to MU in higher education budget

The state House has finalized its proposed budget for state aid to colleges and universities for the fiscal year that begins July 1.  Another favorable vote will send that plan to the Senate for its consideration.

House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

That plan would reduce funding to the University of Missouri by 9-percent, or $50-million, compared to the current fiscal year.  This was part of a reduction across all higher education due to the need to reduce spending.  Lawmakers blocked on Tuesday attempts to take additional money from MU.  House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) urged legislators to not seek to penalize MU over its handling of racial tensions, as many sought to do during last year’s budget debates.

“I don’t like any more than any of you do some of the things that have happened over the last year-and-a-half at the University.  That being said, there is a new president at the institution.  He has already started implementing changes.  I think that a little over 9-percent cut to their operating budget in one year is pretty significant,” said Fitzpatrick.  “I think that if we continue to cut the University of Missouri system the message that we are sending across the state is that we’re going beyond punitive reductions at that point.  At that point I think we’re sending the message that we are expecting the University to raise tuition to make up the difference that we are going to be causing here if we continue to go down this path.”

Some lawmakers still wanted to take more from MU.  Ash Grove Republican Mike Moon wanted to take $1-million from the University to promote tourism.

“One thing that keeps ringing in my mind is $2-million in hidden bonuses that were uncovered by the state auditor,” said Moon, referring to a recent finding regarding the university.  “Maybe I should’ve been more diligent and directed where that money be taken, and maybe salaries need to be looked at.  These bonuses, though, have to stop,” said Moon.

Moon’s amendment was rejected.

The House also rejected attempts to redirect money that goes toward Lincoln University’s land grant status and the federal dollars that come with it.  This was of particular importance to Democrats, including the top Democrat on the Budget Committee, Michael Butler (D-St. Louis).

“We are in danger again this year for a university in the State of Missouri losing those matching funds,” said Butler.  “A lot of work on both sides of the aisle has gone into this.  We’re very happy with the result even though we’re still $3.6-million away [from where we’d like to be].” 

Democrats attempted to remove language in the higher education budget that blocks state money from going to higher education institutions that offer less than the international tuition rate, or scholarships, to students lacking lawful immigration status.

Kansas City Democrat Lauren Arthur called that language punitive, and said it often hurts students who entered the country not by choice but with their parents.

“We passed this language a few years ago and we’ve seen two outcomes for these students.  First, they can’t afford to go to college so they don’t … or, they decide to go to college outside of this state, where we lose an individual who is a contributing member of society,” said Arthur.

Fitzpatrick said Missouri must, “prioritize the citizens of the state, and for that matter the United States, when we look at who’s going to pay the lowest rate of tuition … “This was never an issue until the federal government administratively granted lawful presence – not lawful immigration status; they still have an unlawful immigration status – but when they administratively granted lawful presence to people who were here illegally.”

Arthur’s amendment was rejected.

The higher education budget is laid out in House Bill 3.  The House is expected to vote Thursday on whether to send that and the rest of its proposed state budget to the Senate.

Missouri House gives initial approval to ridesharing company regulations

The Missouri House has given initial approval to a bill that would allow rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft to expand services in the state.

Representative Kirk Mathews (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Kirk Mathews (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 130 would require background checks on national and local drivers, inspections of vehicles, an annual registration fee of $5,000, and would exempt such companies from local or municipal taxes.

It would allow such companies to expand beyond municipalities that have passed their own ordinances governing rideshare companies – so far that’s Kansas City, St. Louis, Columbia, and Springfield.

The bill is sponsored by Representative Kirk Mathews (R-Pacific).  He said the benefits of allowing transportation network companies to expand in Missouri include the creation of jobs and businesses, and a reduction in the number of drunk driving arrests in the state.

“At its core this bill is a free-market solution that produces jobs through innovation and technology,” said Mathews.  “Add Missouri to the list of 38 other states who have passed similar legislation and provided their citizens with the opportunities provided by transportation network companies.”

Mathews said the bill addresses concerns raised last year that Kansas City authorities would struggle to monitor the compliance of companies with the new regulations.

“We added an amendment that provides Kansas City the right twice each year to conduct a random audit on TNC drivers, with a fine for violation as well as other notification provisions,” said Mathews.

“The bill now also provides for TNCs to provide all necessary information to investigate and resolve any criminal complaints,” Mathews adds.

Representative Lauren Arthur (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Lauren Arthur (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The House also voted to require companies to have policies on protecting the personal information of riders.  That was proposed by Kansas City Democrat Lauren Arthur.

She said users of Uber and Lyft often submit a great deal of personal information, “like your home address, your credit card information, and the TNC has the ability to collect records on your travel patterns – where you’re going, where you are at the moment.”

House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) on the opening day of the session named the bill as a priority.

Another favorable vote would send HB 130 to the state Senate.

House proposal to ban lobbyist gifts advances through first committee

A state House proposal aimed at banning gifts from lobbyists to elected officials has taken its first step toward debate by the full chamber.

Representative Justin Alferman said HB 60 is nearly identical to a gift ban proposal he filed in 2016, which was passed out of the House with 147 votes in favor.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Justin Alferman said HB 60 is nearly identical to a gift ban proposal he filed in 2016, which was passed out of the House with 147 votes in favor. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 60 is sponsored by Hermann Republican Justin Alferman, who presented the legislation to the House Committee on General Laws.

“We are trying to eliminate the undue influence of lobbyists on legislators in the building.  That is the individually, personally consumable gifts from lobbyists to legislators,” Alferman told the committee.  “These are the one-on-one dinners, these are the press boxes at sporting events in the state.  That’s what we’re trying to limit.”

In addition to the prohibitions on expenditures by lobbyists for elected officials, the bill would remove reporting requirements that would not be necessary with a ban in place.  It would exempt from those prohibitions flowers and plants, items such as plaques given to lawmakers recognized by an organization, speaking fees, and items that are returned.

The bill would allow lobbyists to provide meals that are offered to all members of the House and Senate as well as all statewide elected officials.  Omitted was a requirement that an invite to those elected officials be made in writing at least 72 hours before the event.  Alferman said that will be amended into the bill because it is “vital” that it be included.

“What we’re trying to do is alleviate any possibility that you would have, say, ‘Hey guess what, me and six other people in the General Assembly, we’re going out right now and we’ve got a lobbyist who’s paying for it,’ and you send out an email  blast and say you know what, ‘We’ll give you five minutes to show up.  Well, no one showed up except us.  We’re going to report it to the entire General Assembly.’  That’s wrong and I know for a fact that has happened in the past and you’ve had group expenditures for a meal of ten, or five, or less,” said Alferman.

“Giving the 72-hours written notice … to all members of the General Assembly including, but not limited to the attorney general and the auditor, I don’t think any lobbyist is crazy enough to try to circumvent this statute, if enacted, having to send a copy to the attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of the state,” said Alferman.

Democratic Representatives Tracy McCreery, Lauren Arthur, and Peter Meredith were critical of HB 60 saying it falls short of being an all-out ban of gifts from lobbyists to elected officials.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Democratic Representatives Tracy McCreery, Lauren Arthur, and Peter Meredith were critical of HB 60 saying it falls short of being an all-out ban of gifts from lobbyists to elected officials. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Democrats said the proposal falls short of being an absolute ban on lobbyist gifts to elected officials, and called for it to be more restrictive.

“What people campaigned on, what our governor-elect campaigned on, and what has been promised to voters is an outright, complete ban and that’s not what this is,” said Representative Lauren Arthur (D-Kansas City).  “This has loopholes that you could drive a truck full of swag through.”

Democrats focused their criticism of House Bill 60 on its exemptions.

Arthur asked whether the exemption for flowers could include a lobbyist paying for flowers for a lawmaker’s wedding.

“Flowers are expensive for a wedding and if a legislator decided, ‘I’m really close friends with this lobbyist.  They’re attending my wedding and I’d like to ask them to pay for my flowers,’ that no longer becomes a small expense,” said Arthur. 

Alferman said in looking at bans in other states, most have an exemption for flowers and plants, “and I don’t think a single legislator told me that they had a problem or that this was a, ‘exemption you could drive a truck through.’”

St. Louis Democrat Tracy McCreery thinks the bill should include a definition of “speaking engagement,” as it allows lobbyists to continue to provide meals to lawmakers at those.  She said a definition would tighten up that exemption.

“I have been at a conference before where the host of the conference set aside time for every elected official in the room to speak for a minute or two so it could qualify,” said McCreery. 

Alferman said he took offense at the use of the word, “loophole,” in describing the exemptions in his legislation.

“By implying that it’s a loophole you’re implying that it was done in a devious nature and deliberately and it certainly was not,” said Alferman.  “I’m very open to tightening down any of this language to make it better so long as we are actually moving for progress on this and not just trying to hinder the bill’s success.”

Alferman expects the legislation to have a greater chance of passage this year than in 2016 when it cleared the House but not the Senate.  That is due in part to support from Governor Eric Greitens, who after being sworn in today signed an executive order aiming to ban lobbyist gifts to members of his staff.

The General Laws Committee voted to pass HB 60 and it next goes to a hearing by the House Rules Committee, Tuesday afternoon at 1:30.

House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) has said he wants a gift ban bill to be the first thing the House sends the Missouri Senate this session.