JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri law provides stronger oversight of farm animals and pets than children housed in some child-care residential centers.
State law exempts from state regulation some of these facilities -- including ones operated by religious organizations.
Beth Griffin, executive director of Citizen for Missouri's Children, charged that the absence of state regulation has led to abuse. She said that some facilities came to Missouri after being forced to close down in other states because of violations of state standards.
"Regulation is a way to assure health and physical safety and doesn't infringe on religious authority," Griffin said.
For the last several years, efforts in Missouri's legislature to bring these religious-operated facilities under state regulation have failed.
This year, the two measures never reached even a full chamber debate.
"We want to take out the exemption for licensing for religious reformatories or other schools," said the sponsor of the House bill -- Rep. Barbara Fraser, D-St. Louis County. "We want all of them to be licensed."
The sponsor of the Senate bill -- Sen. Pat Dougherty. D-St. Louis -- said that kids needed basic protection and the state had the responsibility to provide minimum standards for health, safety and fire protection.
"We have a weak law and our teenagers deserve a better consideration," Dougherty said.
Lawmakers have defeated several bills in recent years that would have regulated the residential programs. Each time, critics have argued that the legislation would interfere with religious freedom.
Sen. Norma Champion, R-Green County, said that these facilities had been very successful and that they should have the freedom to continue doing what they were doing.
"I don't see the point of licensing," Champion said. "These facilities don't want to be under state regulation, so they should leave them alone."
But some religious facilities have voluntarily decided to be licensed by the state. Jim Thurman, President of Presbyterian Children's Services, told a Senate committee earlier this year that licensing had never been a hindrance for his faith.
"I urge you to end the exploitation of children in Missouri," he said. "Passage of this legislation won't protect us completely from those who operate illegally. It will, however, give our authorities the power to enforce at least the most minimum human rights and to prosecute those who willingly violate the law."