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Foster care legislation on governor's desk

May 16, 2003
By: Sara Bondioli
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB679

JEFFERSON CITY - While it started out as a bill to crack down on the state's child welfare system, it became a bill to protect both parents and children.

The deaths of 2-year-olds Dominic James and Constance Porter while in foster care over the last two years prompted a discussion of Missouri's child welfare system.

A bill on the governor's desk would set statewide goals for the privatization of child welfare services. The system would have to be 20 percent privatized by January 1, 2005, 35 percent by 2006 and at least 50 percent by 2007.

The system is currently about 11 percent privatized, said Chris Rackers, associate director for the Department of Social Services.

The bill would also require more evidence of problems at home before the state could remove a child, placing the burden of proof on the state.

Wright said he believes the standard may be raised again in the future.

"Most of the other states have a much higher legal standard to do that," he said.

Regarding state liability, caseworkers would be dismissed for intentionally or willfully avoiding Division of Family Services policy that results in injury or death of a child.

Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Joplin, said the section was crafted so that it would hold caseworkers acccountable but only punish the ones that truly deserved it. It includes a provision that takes into account the high caseloads workers sometimes handle.

"It was balanced in a way that did not put an undue burden on good caseworkers," Stevenson said.

However, Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said he is afraid the intent of the accountability will backfire and cause workers to needlessly remove children from their biological parents.

The bill would open some juvenile court records, such as orders and pleadings, to the public.

Stevenson said this struck a balance between those who wanted all DFS files and investigations open and those who worried about protecting children from scrutiny.

Wexler said the provisions in the bill make it too easy for judges to close records and hearings.

Allowing parents, children or DFS to record meetings and interrogations is another provision Wright said was important. He said too many parents have said they were coerced into signing away their parental rights or making deals with DFS.

The bill would also increase background checks for foster parents.

Stevenson said he and others are already looking ahead and working on a foster care bill for next session.

Many provisions of the original foster care bill were based on the recommendations of the Supreme Court Commission on Children's Justice. The commission was created in January by Chief Justice Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr.

The commission's final report is due out in June.

Gov. Bob Holden would not say whether or not he will sign the foster care bill.