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.

Sweeping criminal justice reform package prepared for consideration

The House Speaker has said criminal justice reform is a priority in the remaining weeks of the session, and a bill containing several proposed reforms has just been compiled.  It has the backing of a man made famous by President Donald Trump earlier this year.

Representative Shamed Dogan (left, in red tie) listens as Matthew Charles talks about his release under the federal First Step Act, and his support for HCB 2, the Missouri First Step Act. (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Committee Bill 2, also being called the Missouri First Step Act, was assembled by the House Special Committee on Criminal Justice.  It is a compilation of several individual bills, some of which have already been passed by the House.

Trump featured Matthew Charles during his State of the Union Address.  Charles is the first person released from prison under the federal First Step Act, a federal reform bill signed into law by Trump in December.

In 1996 Charles was sentenced to 35 years in prison for selling crack cocaine.  In prison he turned his life around and earned an early release in 2016.  Though he was living a productive life, a court decision overturned his release and sent him back to prison until he was released under the First Step Act.

He’s excited about a provision in HCB 2 that would let judges ignore mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes in Missouri.

“It would allow the probation officer as well as the judge to make an assessment on the amount of time that needed to be imposed on somebody for that crime, or the amount of time they will actually serve for that offense, whereas rehabilitation has been taken away from prison for a long time,” said Charles.

The stand-alone mandatory minimum sentences legislation, House Bill 113 sponsored by Representative Cody Smith (R-Carthage), has been sent to the Senate and awaits a committee hearing.

HCB 2 will be carried by the committee’s chairman, Representative Shamed Dogan (R-Ballwin), who has been a proponent of criminal justice reform during his five years in the House.

“These measures are all evidence-based.  They will all help us save enormous amounts of taxpayer money while also improving public safety, and they’ll give people who’ve made mistakes in their lives a chance to be treated with dignity while incarcerated and to have more of a chance of rebuilding their lives whenever they get out,” said Dogan.

HCB 2 would apply the state’s law restricting the use of restraints on pregnant offenders to county or city jails.  That bars the use of restraints on a woman in the third trimester of pregnancy and through 48-hours after delivery while they’re being transported except in extraordinary circumstances, which must be documented and reviewed.

Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R-Arnold) sponsors that legislation (House Bill 1122).  She said it’s about the safety of those offenders, but also of their babies.

“It’s making sure that when women are in labor, when women are in advanced stages of pregnancy, and when they have really no risk of harm that we’re really treating people as people and that we’re being appropriate as well,” said Coleman.  “It’s not about trying to be lax on people who have committed crimes.  They’re paying their costs, but a pregnant woman is very vulnerable and we want to make sure that she and her child are delivered safely.”

Representative Cheri Toalson Reisch (at podium) speaks about her portion of HCB 2, the Missouri First Step Act (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Another piece of HCB 2 coming from a bill sponsored by Coleman (House Bill 920) would require that feminine hygiene products are available to women being held in the state’s prisons or on state charges in county and city jails.

“That is not an issue that I expected to be tackling but you find out certain things and you think, ‘How is it possible that as a state we’re not providing adequate hygiene supplies to those who are in our care and custody?’” said Coleman.

Representative Cheri Toalson Reisch (R-Hallsville) sponsored House Bill 189, to allow people convicted of felonies to work in certain businesses that sell alcohol or lottery tickets, such as grocery or convenience stores.  That is also included in HCB 2.

“Where I’m from in Boone County we have 1.5-percent unemployment.  This is the second lowest in the country.  We cannot find enough employees.  We would like to put these felons to work,” said Toalson Reisch.  “We need them to avoid recidivism and make better lives for themselves and their families.”

Two of the other pieces of HCB 2 would restrict the use of drug and alcohol testing by privately operated probation supervisors (House Bill 80Justin Hill, R-Lake St. Louis); and would keep courts from putting people in jail for failing to pay the costs associated with prior jail time (House Bill 192Bruce DeGroot, R-Chesterfield).  Both of those stand-alone bills have been sent to the Senate for its consideration.

HCB 2 includes language to allow for the early parole of certain inmates over the age of 65 (House Bill 352, Tom Hannegan, R-St. Charles); to stop the confiscation of assets from a person who hasn’t been convicted of a crime (House Bill 444, Dogan); and to prohibit discriminatory policing (House Bill 484, Dogan).

HCB 2 awaits a hearing by a House committee before it can be sent to the full chamber for debate.

Earlier stories on two of the bills that are part of HCB 2:

House votes to prevent jailing of Missourians for failing to pay jail bills (HB 192)

Missouri House endorses elimination of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent crimes (House Bill 113)

House Committee advances bill to protect trafficking victims from prosecution

A bill meant to make it easier for sex trafficking victims to avoid being prosecuted for prostitution is advancing through the Missouri House.

Representative Mary Elizabeth Coleman presents House Bill 397, the first bill of her legislative career, to the House Committee on General Laws. (photo; Mike Lear, Missouri House Communications)

Missouri law makes it an affirmative defense for a minor charged with prostitution to have been acting under coercion at the time of the crime.  Under House Bill 397 it would be an affirmative defense that the defendant was under the age of 18.  It would also allow a person guilty of prostitution while a minor to apply to the courts to have records of that crime expunged.

“Right now not all of our laws treat victims as victims,” Jessica Seitz with Missouri Kids First told the House Committee on General Laws.  “This, right now, is essentially a loophole where a young person can be charged with prostitution when they’re a victim of trafficking, and this can be even more traumatic.  Arrest and prosecution can further traumatize a victim which prevents victims from seeking assistance.”

The bill is sponsored by freshman state lawmaker Mary Elizabeth Coleman (R-Arnold).

“This is a common sense provision in the first part of the bill that says if you can’t consent to a tattoo or to have your ears pierced, that you cannot consent to prostitution,” said Coleman.

Coleman told the committee it can be difficult for minors to prove coercion because trafficking victims have often been forced to abuse drugs.

“By the time that she’s arrested it’s difficult to untangle and prove force or coercion because at that point she may be paying off fines and paying off her drug use,” said Coleman.

The bill would also add some offenses related to child abuse and sex trafficking to the state law’s definition of “pattern of criminal gang activity.”  Advocates say the frequency of trafficking operations being conducted by gangs has increased in recent years.

Office of Child Advocate Director Kelly Schultz spoke in support of that provision.  She told the committee about the handling of a case when a child in the state’s foster system was found to have been trafficked.

“Somebody actively recruited that child, somebody advertised that child, somebody got them a hotel room, and somebody enforced payment.  Johns weren’t just willingly throwing money at young kids to have sex.  Somebody was enforcing the payment as well.  It was very much an organized crime,” said Schultz.

Schultz stressed to lawmakers that in a 2013 nationwide raid by the FBI, about 60-percent of the children recovered were involved in the child welfare system and many had open foster care cases.

“I always tell the public these children are our responsibility, but when I’m talking to you guys I am being very literal.  These children – 60-percent of them – are literally our responsibility,” said Schultz.

The committee voted unanimously to advance the bill.  It is scheduled to be considered Monday by another committee, and then it could go before the full House for debate.