Legislative package addresses domestic violence, trafficking

      Missouri legislators passed a package of measures intended to protect victims of sexual and domestic violence and trafficking before the 2022 regular session drew to a close on May 13.  Senate Bill 775 contained language sponsored by several House members, and now awaits action by Governor Mike Parson (R).

Representative Hannah Kelly (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “It’s our big legislative win for this session,” said Jennifer Carter Dochler, who was the legislative liaison for the Missouri Coalition against Domestic and Sexual Violence during the regular session. 

      The bill was handled in the House by Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove), who was glad to see it reach the governor’s desk despite issues in the legislature that created challenges for all legislation this year.

      “At the end of the day the process that our founding fathers set out caused it to be that we were able to come together and accomplish something good despite our differences and that is a beautiful thing that everybody needs to walk away remembering should always be our highest priority.  You’re not going to find a better [issue] to do it on than this.”

      Kelly said of particular importance to her, personally, in SB 775 is the language that establishes the “Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights.”  This seeks to make sure victims know their rights regarding the gathering of evidence and related medical exams; access to incident reports; and protections from intimidation and harassment by an attacker. 

      Kelly said someone important in her life is a victim of rape and, “The provisions in this bill, I believe, would’ve brought justice for this person in a swifter manner.”

      The Bill of Rights portion is meant to, among other things, give some clarity and guidance to victims, who often find themselves traumatized and with no knowledge of what to do or to whom to turn.

All [that a victim knows] is a really horrible thing has happened that nobody ever dreams will happen to them,” said Kelly.  “The heart and soul of it is protecting victims and providing stronger protections and providing education … and what greater cause to unite behind than educating and empowering victims in these horrible situations to know what their rights are and to know the pathway by which they can appropriately seek justice.”  

      SB 775 also clarifies definitions in Missouri law regarding “sexual contact” and “sexual conduct.”  Representative David Evans (R-West Plains) said he dealt with at least one case, during his 28 years as a judge, in which unclear definitions regarding contact with minor victims hindered prosecution.

      “Taking ambiguous law or badly written law and making it clear is important clearly for the victims of crime but also clarifies, which is required in criminal law, exactly what the crime is,” said Evans.  “None of us can be convicted of a crime that’s ambiguous.  That’s protection under due process … it’s good to have specific law especially when you’re dealing with a very serious felony.”

Representative David Evans (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      SB 775 would specify that no persons younger than 18 will be prosecuted for prostitution, and if located by law enforcement while engaged in commercial sexual acts, they will be considered a victim of abuse and referred to the Children’s Division and juvenile officers to receive help.  It also eliminates the requirement that a person under 18 and charged with prostitution must prove they were coerced to avoid conviction.

      These were provisions found in legislation sponsored by Representative Ed Lewis (R-Moberly), who said the laws regarding these individuals needs to be focused on getting them help. 

      “A lot of times a minor can be in that lifestyle and not even know that they’re being trafficked, not even know that they’re being abused.  They think, ‘Well no, I’m doing this of my own free will,’ but they’re not.  They’re being abused and used by some adult for their own gain, and we have to get them the help they need to help them to understand that this is not right,” said Lewis.  “Instead of looking at these people who have come to rescue them as rescuers they can look at them as the enemy and we have to make sure that they get the help that they need so they understand what their outcome should be and how to get back to what we would call a normal life free of abuse.”

      Other related sections deal with prosecuting those who attempted to engage in sexual acts or pornography-related offenses with individuals under 18. 

      The bill also contains language sponsored by Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) dealing with orders of protection.  It would state that a person with an order of protection against them cannot skip a court date regarding that order and then plead ignorance to knowing it was still in effect.  He and Carter Dochler say this defense has often been successful for abusers who would violate an order and then say they didn’t know it was in place because they didn’t attend a hearing. 

      Roberts has often said that this and other proposals he has filed stem from his time in law enforcement – including as Joplin’s police chief and the director of the Department of Public Safety – and times in his career when he couldn’t help a victim because of how the law was written. 

      “Sometimes the law doesn’t serve the victim and sometimes, frankly, the process to provide due process to the person that’s accused ultimately re-victimizes the victim, so it’s been very frustrating to me throughout my [law enforcement] career.  Now I’m in a position to do something about it.”

      Along that same line, Roberts said a provision in SB 775 that is important to him is one that allows victims to testify via video rather than have to appear in court for a domestic violence proceeding. 

Representative Lane Roberts (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Roberts says too often, a victim is afraid to proceed with prosecution for fear or retribution by their abuser.  This provision addresses that fear; specifically that requiring a victim to appear in court creates an instance in which their abuser will know where and when to find them. 

“If you read the newspapers you will frequently see where a domestic violence case was dismissed because the victim didn’t show up to testify.  I can’t tell you how many times that’s because they were afraid to show up but I guarantee you it’s a significant part of the number of people who don’t show up, and why.”

      With all these issues, legislators have to craft language that protects victims but also allows for due process for those who are accused.  Evans believes with SB 775, Missouri gets closer to finding the right balance between those considerations, “and again that’s one thing I really enjoy doing, is balancing the rights of those that are charged but making it absolutely clear to protect the victims of the crimes as well.  I think we’re getting there.”

      The House vote that sent SB 775 to the governor was 141-0.  Carter Dochler said the Coalition is, “very grateful and really excited [that] at a time where there has been so much turbulence on different issues that everybody could really come together and find agreement on items that would make things better for victims of domestic violence or sexual assault, or some other related judicial proceedings.”

SB 775 includes several other provisions, including those that would make it a crime for any coach of minors to abuse a minor, whereas currently law speaks only to high school coaches; extends protections against the release of a victim’s personal information to include their personal email address, birth date, health status, or any information from a forensic testing report; and further restricts when the prior sexual conduct of a witness or victim in a sexual offense case may be inquired about in a legal proceeding.

Veto session: House votes to fund programs fighting child abuse, neglect; Senate disagrees

      The Missouri House voted Wednesday to override Governor Mike Parson’s (R) vetoes of several spending proposals in the state budget, including one aimed at stemming the sexual abuse of children in Lincoln County. 

Representative Randy Pietzman (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      The Senate did not concur on those overrides and allowed the governor’s actions to stand, and those proposals to fail.

      House members including Lincoln County representative Randy Pietzman (R-Troy) took to the floor expressing anger and frustration that Parson rejected $300,000 to fund a 3-year pilot program that would’ve hired investigators, a prosecutor, and staff to address an increase in sex offenders in the region.

      “I have children in my district that are getting ravaged … I’d like to read you the list of the cases but I think it’s just too much.  Children in my district getting raped and made child pornography with them.  It’s going on and we’ve got to stop it,” said Pietzman.

      He said that line item would be enough to get the program started and after 3 years local officials could sustain it after that.

Pietzman said he was approached with “offers” by people who didn’t want him to even propose the override.

      “Screw those guys.  I’m fighting to the end for these kids.  They deserve justice.  This is small piece of pie of our budget but it can do so much good if we get it into the hands of the right people, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

      Pietzman directed his criticism squarely at the governor, saying this was a plan he and others in the county worked for years to develop.  The governor has said that a federal grant program can be used to address this issue but Pietzman says that will not work.

      “Unlike [the governor] I’m not looking for a photo opportunity saying this is what I’m doing.  I’m doing it for those kids,” said Pietzman.

      The House voted 150-3 in favor of that override.

      The chamber also voted 151-3 to reverse the governor on a $2-million item that included 3-percent pay raises for caseworkers and supervisors in the Children’s Division.  These employees deal with abuse, neglect, and other issues facing children in the custody of the state.

Representative Raychel Proudie (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      Representative Raychel Proudie (R-Ferguson) said Missouri is having a hard time retaining those workers, partly because of how much they are paid.

      “Some of these workers [are] being spat at, cursed at, threatened  [while] trying to protect the children of this state when they can just go down to the local wizard stand or the local Wal-Mart and get paid more, and deal with less.  We owe them better than that,” said Proudie.

      On another vote, the House voted to restore funding for court costs to the owners of certain wedding venues.  St. Louis Republican Jim Murphy said these owners were years ago told by the Department of Revenue they did not need to pay sales tax, but years later the Department sent them bills for tens of thousands of dollars in back taxes.  Eventually everything was paid back to those owners but the court costs.

      Murphy said the Department harmed and lied to those Missourians.  “This year there was $150-thousand put into the budget to do the right thing, and that’s give these people their money back … well the governor, in his wisdom, and I cannot explain why, vetoed this,” said Murphy.  “We have promised these people over and over again that we would do right by them, only to have the rug pulled out from under them.”

      The House supported that override 152-2.

      It also voted 112-38 to override a veto on $700,000 for a Community Improvement District along Business Loop 70 in Columbia.

      These overrides were sent to the Senate, which voted to reject two of them and did not vote on the other two, so the governor’s vetoes stand.

Representative, former police chief, proposes tighter stalking laws

      A state representative frustrated by years of having to tell stalking victims he couldn’t help them is sponsoring a bill to toughen Missouri statute.

      Retired Joplin police chief and former Department of Public Safety director Lane Roberts (R-Joplin) says technology has outpaced Missouri law.

Representative Lane Roberts (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications, 01-29-2020)

      “The use of technology – computers, tracking devices, cell phones – to be able to stalk and terrorize victims has grown exponentially over the last decade and our statute simply does not address it,” said Roberts. 

      “Having to look somebody who’s the victim of stalking in the eye and tell them why you can’t do things to help them out, knowing full well that they’re being terrorized by people, is a pretty uncomfortable and frustrating position,” said Roberts.  “Finally, frankly I’m in a position to maybe do something about it.”

      How Missouri law dealing with orders of protection defines stalking only covers the following of a person or unwanted communication.  Roberts’ proposal, House Bill 292, would broaden it to cover things like the use of cell phones, GPS, cameras, or third parties to observe, threaten, or communicate about or to someone.

      The House Committee on Crime Prevention heard from Janice Thompson Gehrke. She about her experience being harassed by her ex-husband, who is now in prison for shooting his ex-fiancé and her boyfriend.  This included sending his roommate to her workplace multiple times on the pretense of conducting business, having friends monitor her on social media, and using her information to have her phone spammed with contest and prize offers.

      “Now this may not seem like a big deal to some, but when you’re dealing with an abuser like him, you know there is a message being sent:  ‘I am watching you, and short of living your life completely off the grid, you’re not going to get away from me.’”

      She spoke of another victim who is being harassed through threats on social media, but the law does not allow her to seek an order of protection because, as she put it, “it’s not technically him.”

      “What we survivors ask is that you give us as many tools as possible to help set up as many roadblocks [as possible] preventing access to us so we have a chance to escape alive,” said Thompson Gehrke.

      Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence Public Policy Director Jennifer Carter Dochler said her organization backs HB 292.

      “Survivors deserve safety so we must continue to keep pace with the ways offenders find loopholes such as those that are remedied in House Bill 292.  We’re very appreciative of Representative Roberts, who filed this legislation after hearing from constituents the barriers they were experiencing with applying for a stalking order of protection,” said Carter Dochler.  “Our statute needs to be revised to keep up with the technological advances abusers have found to stalk their victims.”

      Roberts has also filed a bill (House Bill 744) that would allow victims to seek a lifetime order of protection against an individual.  Orders of protection are only valid for a year at a time.  That has been referred to a committee.

      He said throughout his career he was frustrated many times that he couldn’t do anything to help a victim of stalking and abuse, but one case frequently comes to mind in which a mother and elementary school-aged child were being abused.

      “It was so outrageous, and this individual was so convinced that because he was a man, it was ‘my way or the highway.’  I think what I said to him probably could be interpreted as a threat,” said Roberts.  “That kind of frustration, I think, exists for every police officer.  Every officer who knows that this victim is depending on them and we’re letting them down.”

      The committee has not voted on HB 292.

House approves bill meant to stop school-to-school movement of child abusers

The House has proposed that school districts open up lines of communication with one another to stop employees with a history of abusing students from going from one district to another.

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

That is one of the things House Bill 739 aims to accomplish, according to its sponsor, Representative Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark).

“This bill would allow for school districts to contact an employee’s former employers from a list supplied by [The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education].  The schools would be required to disclose the actual violation of the schools’ regulations as it pertains to sexual misconduct with a student,” said Miller.

The legislation has the support of various child advocacy groups, who told lawmakers that right now, schools cannot share such information about former employees.  This often allows individuals with a history of abuse to find jobs in other districts and to abuse more children.

One of Hazelwood Democrat Paula Brown’s previous jobs was in human resources in a school district.  She said she was often in a terrible position.

“When someone calls to check a reference the only thing that we can reply with is, ‘We would not rehire them,’ with no explanation further than that,” said Brown.  “This will free up HR directors and assistant superintendents to speak the truth.  It will allow people not to be hired in other districts when they were fired from a different district,” said Brown.

“I think what we’re doing is not only saving children but affording school districts an opportunity not to be sued at the rate they are being sued at this point,” said Brown.

One provision added on the House Floor would require criminal background checks of anyone who volunteers with a school district, if that person will have regular or one-on-one contact with students or access to student records.

Representative Kathy Swan (R-Cape Girardeau) sponsored that amendment.

“We require background checks on school administrators, teachers, teachers’ aides, assistants, secretaries, cooks, bus drivers, and custodians, but not volunteers,” said Swan.

Representative David Wood (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Another piece added by the full House extends the definition of those who can be found guilty of abuse to include any person who developed a relationship with a child through school, even if the abuse did not occur on school grounds or during school hours.

Representative David Wood (R-Versailles) said this would close a “loophole” child advocates described to him.

“If the offense would happen on school grounds that’s easy enough to take care of, but when the offense happens off those school grounds, there’s been four cases in the last two years that [investigators have] had a lack of a preponderance of evidence,” said Wood.

The bill adds two-and-a-half hours to the training required of new school board members, which would be focused on identifying signs of sexual abuse and potentially abusive relationships between adults and children.  It would also require an hour of refresher training, annually.

Finally, the bill requires schools to offer students trauma-informed, developmentally appropriate sexual abuse training for grades six and above.  Parents who don’t want their children to receive that training could choose to opt-out of it.

The House voted 150-4 to send the bill to the Senate.

Earlier story:  House committee considers legislation to stop abusive teachers from going to new districts

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.”