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Far-reaching proposal would address child protection, foster care in Missouri

St. Louis Post-Dispatch - 2/24/2021

Feb. 24—JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri's child welfare laws could receive a long list of updates that include increased protections for infants and toddlers and insurance coverage for former foster children.

Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold, said a past effort to overhaul protection laws was a "piecemeal" approach and didn't necessarily address child welfare experts' top priorities.

Coleman is the chair of the House Children and Families Committee, which heard her omnibus child welfare proposal Wednesday.

Her legislation addresses some remaining issues and is the result of discussions started with child advocates and service providers two years ago, Coleman said.

House Speaker Rob Vescovo, R-Arnold, has named foster care reform a top priority. The House passed legislation expanding financial support for foster and adoptive families early in the session.

Coleman's 76-page proposal includes several measures to keep vulnerable infants and young children safe, creates a "whistleblower" reporting system for Children's Division employees, gives the division jurisdiction over child abuse investigations in schools, extends health insurance coverage for former foster children and gives judges discretion to keep minors out of adult prisons.

People used to think the experiences of very young children didn't affect them later in life, Coleman said, but we now know that "every time you remove a child from a home you're very seriously harming that child" even if the removal is necessary for the child's safety.

Coleman's proposal seeks to mitigate some of that trauma while still keeping children safe from other types of harm.

It would create "safe baby courts" to handle cases of children under 3 years old and connect their families to services. Coleman said the courts could work on moving young children to permanent family situations more quickly.

Adjustments to the definition of "child abandonment," which for children under 3 could allow for termination of parental rights after 60 days of abandonment, are also meant to move young children to "permanency" more quickly, Coleman said.

Rep. Sarah Unsicker, D-Shrewsbury, said she was concerned the 60-day timeframe was too short for parents who are experiencing a crisis or a bout of postpartum depression but do not want to permanently lose custody.

"We might just have to agree to disagree," Coleman said after a brief discussion.

The "Birth Match" program included in the legislation would prompt a hotline call if a new infant's parents have neglected or abused children in the past but would not automatically take the child from the parents, Coleman said.

The legislation also specifies that hospitals aren't required to call the Children's Division if the baby or mother tests positive for controlled substances, but the mother is undergoing medication-assisted treatment with a health care provider.

Her proposal also adds newborn incubators at police stations, fire stations and medical facilities where parents can leave infants they are unable to care for.

One point of discussion was who should be responsible for receiving whistleblower complaints from Children's Division employees.

Coleman said she believed the Office of Child Advocate, which is not part of the Division of Social Services, should be responsible.

Kelly Schultz, the office's director, testified she would be willing to take on the role but worried Children's Division employees would be hesitant to confide in her office, which contacts them with policy and practice concerns.

"I'm not sure I'm the trusted party they would turn to if their safety was at risk," she said.

Schultz suggested the complaints should go to the Children's Division's central office, which is similar to what the state of Tennessee does.

Rep. Dottie Bailey, R-Eureka, worried that could create a conflict of interest.

As with schools investigating their own child abuse allegations, "policing your own organization is very difficult," she said.

Another concern was allowing judges the discretion to keep minors out of adult prisons.

Coleman said that currently minors tried as adults must be sent to adult prisons but segregated from the other prisoners for their own protection. That means they end up in solitary confinement, she said.

Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, said he had concerns with those minors being kept with other juveniles.

A representative of Social Services told him the department has the infrastructure to care for more youth in high-security facilities, which she said are designed to keep children safe and are not like jails. Minors tried as adults "would not be segregated" from others in those facilities, she said.

Several children's advocacy groups and service providers spoke in support of the legislation. Some praised the proposal to extend insurance under Missouri'sHealthNet program to former foster children up to age 26 who don't have other sources of insurance.

"When we're looking at those indicators for good outcomes as adults, access to health care is very important," said Mary Chant of the Missouri Coalition of Children's Agencies. Successfully navigating physical and behavioral health issues "can be the difference between securing and maintaining employment, college education and family."

Coleman pointed out that many young adults who aren't in the foster system can remain on their parents' health insurance.

"Our foster kids don't have parents," she said.

The proposal is HB 673.


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