JEFFERSON CITY - A bill that would make it easier to fire Division of Family Services workers who don't follow department policy gained preliminary approval in the House Wednesday.
The sweeping foster care reform bill also would establish a privatization pilot project in select areas of the state.
Interest in reform of Missouri's child welfare system increased with the deaths of 2-year-olds Dominic James and Constance Porter. Both died while in foster care.
The 104-page bill is the only comprehensive measure on foster care that House Children and Families Committee Chair Susan Phillips said she expects the House to pass this session.
"This will be the vehicle that moves through," she said.
The bill would allow for dismissal of a Division of Family Services employee if a child suffers serious injury or death as a result of an employee's violation of DFS policy or state law.
A floor amendment added that any person who violates DFS policy or state law would be subject to a misdemeanor crime.
House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-St. Louis County, sponsored the bill and agreed with the amendment. She said that without the provision, workers couldn't be charged even if their negligence led to the death of a child.
Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Joplin, addressed concerns that the amendment placed too much liability on case workers.
"It actually leaves them in a little bit safer position than school teachers currently," he said.
The privatization pilot project would allow for the state to contract child welfare services to public and private agencies in St. Louis City, Greene County and one rural county.
The bill would also change the standard of proof for removal of a child from probable cause to a preponderance of the evidence.
Rep. Mike Sager, D-Jackson County, said the change would place a great burden of proof on DFS and leave children in unsafe homes.
Hanaway said the burden of proof is almost comparable between the two standards.
"We have a subjective and mostly criminal standard of proof and we are replacing it with an objective (standard)," she said. "It's going to better protect those that might be wrongly accused."
The bill addresses openness by allowing any party to record meetings and hearings about a child's removal. It would also open juvenile court proceedings, except during the testimony of a child or victim.
The court may close proceedings to protect the child's best interests.
The bill, which combined HB 679 and HB 396, faces another vote in the House before moving on to the Senate.