JEFFERSON CITY - One of the top priorities of the new Republican leadership in Missouri's House moved closer to approval when that body passed a foster care measure Thursday.
House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-St. Louis County, sponsored the bill that would, among other changes, set up a pilot program for privatizing child services provided by the state's Family Services Division.
Under the bill, the state would select a private company to give the services the division would normally provide. Only St. Louis County, Greene County and a rural county chosen by the division would be in the pilot.
Hanaway said division already gives 20 percent of its case work to private services. "We want to allow the division to contract for the very best services available for our children," Hanaway said.
Opponents, however, argued that unlicensed organizations could get involved in childrens' services.
"We are opening the door for unlicensed and unregulated groups to provide services," said Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia. "When we allow fly-by-night, and fanatical groups to get into the business of child care, that's a big red flag to me."
Current law does not restrict child-service contracts to licensed service providers. Rep. Barbara Fraser, D-St. Louis County, said she is worried because unlicensed service providers don't have to go through background checks or safety and health reviews.
"It is appauling to think that this state would contract with unlicensed care takers," Fraser said.
Hanaway said turning over services to the private sector may save the state money in the long run.
"I don't want to close out anyone from those contracts," Hanaway said.
Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, said she supports most of the bill, but voted against it because of licensing concerns.
"We have seen a history of harm and tragic situations of abuse," Wilson said. "I am concerned about allowing unlicensed facilities to get DFS contracts."
Legislative and Family Services Division staff have estimated the cost of the changes at nearly $60 million in the next two years. But, Hanaway said she will ask the Senate to take out a portion of the bill that makes up about $25 million of that before the bill is finally passed.
"Appropriations are about priorities," Hanaway said. "Preventing children from dying outweighs many other priorities."
The bill now moves to the Senate.