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Legislators respond to foster care problems with bill proposals

March 19, 2003
By: Sara Bondioli
State Capital Bureau
Links: HB396, HB679, SB43, SB63, SB306, SB430, SB593, SB609, SB628

JEFFERSON CITY - Following the deaths of 2-year-olds Dominic James and Constance Porter, legislators have proposed several foster care bills to revise the state's foster care and juvenile court systems.

Dominic was removed from his home by the Divison of Family Services (DFS) after a domestic disturbance. His foster father was charged in the boy's August 2002 shaking death.

Constance was placed in DFS care after her family became homeless. Her foster mother pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter for Constance's February 2001 death.

Although some legislators say legislation is not the first step to solving the state's foster care problems, bills that would impact everything from the child abuse hot line to the DFS have been introduced this session.

Sen. Bill Foster, R-Poplar Bluff and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said most specific issues with the state's foster care system relate only to individual counties or areas and will likely be solved by using consistent policies across the state.

He said the first step is establishing policies for DFS and the juvenile court system that are applied consistently statewide. Foster said he hopes the Supreme Court Commission on Children's Justice, which is currently examining the system, will make policy changes for DFS and the judicial system, leaving little to be changed through legislation.

"We have purposely not introduced a lot of legislation yet -- we'll probably wait till next year," Foster said.

Sen. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis City, said most of the changes will be policy but some, like the creation of an ombudsman, would be good to have in statute.

"The money part we have to do in appropriations, so that is extremely significant," he said. "A lot of that can be done this year."

Rep. Mark Wright, R-Springfield, said the Supreme Court commission is good, but the General Assembly has to start passing legislation this session.

"We have children that are dying and for the legislature to sit idly by... is irresponsible," Wright said.

FOSTER PARENTS

Since Dominic's stepfather, John Dilley Jr., was charged with the boy's death, legislators have looked at revising the foster parent selection process.

A report released recently by State Auditor Claire McCaskill found that DFS does not currently search circuit court records of foster parents, a practice that would have found Dilley's violent history in an order of protection. The audit also found two other active licensed foster parents with orders of protection against them.

Wright has introduced the Dominic James Memorial Foster Care Reform Act of 2003, which includes a provision that would toughen the background checks on foster parents so that individuals with a record of any offense involving violence are not eligible.

A Senate bill would prohibit individuals with an domestic violence court order or full order of protection from qualifying as foster parents. Applicants would also undergo a fingerprint check before being approved.

DIVISION OF FAMILY SERVICES

A number of bills, including one sponsored by House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-St. Louis County, would make DFS workers civilly and criminally liable in cases where children in the system are harmed.

The bills state that any employee who violates department policy or state law, "intentionally or through gross negligence," would be guilty of a felony if it results in serious injury or death.

Wright said this is important because currently caseworkers can disregard division policies without being held responsible.

McCaskill's audit found that case workers made the required twice monthly visits with children in care in only 4 of 170 cases. No in-home visits were found in 24 cases.

Wright's bill would require DFS hearings to be recorded. A bill in the Senate would also require interrogations or interviews of children in DFS to be recorded.

CHILD ABUSE HOT LINE

While the two child deaths have focused legislative attention on child protection, lawmakers also have heard from parents who have complained for years that the state's system does not provide adequate protections for parents who are falsely accused.

Wright's bill would also require callers to the Missouri child abuse hot line to leave their name, address and identification number. A similar bill, propososed by Foster, would require a name, address and telephone number for each caller.

In both bills, the information would be kept confidential and used only within the department.

Proportionately to the state's population, Missouri's child abuse hot line receives more calls than any other state except Alaska. Foster said that amounts to 103,000 calls in 2002, which doesn't allow DFS to fully investigate all calls.

Foster said many of these calls are from divorce case participants who falsely report each other to better their own chances in winning custody cases.

"We've got to stop allowing people to use our hot line service as a whipping post for their spouse in a divorce case," Foster said.

Wright said DFS doesn't have enough time to investigate the important hot line calls because "they're always investigating these doggone bogus calls."

Foster's bill would also add a statement to the hot line recording that would say reporting false information may result in a caller being charged with a misdemeanor.

JUVENILE COURTS

Hanaway's bill would open juvenile court proceedings to the public in most cases. The courts would still be closed when a child is testifying or when the judge determines the proceedings should be closed for a good cause.

A Senate bill would require instituting probable cause as the standard of proof for child care proceedings instead of the current requirement of a preponderance of the evidence.

Another bill introduced in the Senate would order the court to appoint a guardian ad litem in cases with substantiated child abuse allegations.

An additional Senate bill would prohibit appeals in cases where parental rights have been terminated.

RECORDS

Hanaway's bill addresses records kept on individuals reported for abuse and neglect charges. Currently, reports with insufficient evidence of abuse or neglect remain on an individual's record for ten years when they are reported by mandated reporters. The bill would shorten that time span to five years.

Under Hanaway's bill, no identifying information on the report would be retained if no evidence of abuse or neglect is found.

Hanaway's bill would allow disclosure of child abuse and neglect records to legislators. Records would become public when a child suffers life-threatening injury or death from abuse or neglect.

A Senate bill would also make case records available to the public upon the death of such a child.

PRIVATIZATION

Hanaway's bill would implement a pilot project to look at the use of private agencies in Greene County, the city of St. Louis and one rural county.

Services performed by DFS in those areas would be contracted to various public and private child service agencies through a competitive bid process.

DFS would submit a report to the legislature each year of the pilot with details of the project and recommendations about its continuation or expansion.

OVERSIGHT

Following Gov. Bob Holden's appointment of a task force on the foster care system, the governor issued an executive order for the creation of an ombudsman position and reorganization of the Department of Social Services. But some legislators said they want the position passed in legislation to put it in statute.

Dougherty has introduced a bill that would establish a child advocate to work with DFS and the court system to address problems families encounter. His concern is that the position is given enough power and authority to be able to push for change rather than only listen to problems.

"We need a child advocate program in this state where you, me, a foster parent, a regular parent, whoever can go and say 'the system's not working right in this one particular case'."

Dougherty said the advocate would need to work with DFS and the courts but be independent of both sides.

"They've got to have the resources, the power, to make the changes."

Foster said he worries the ombudsman's method of solving problems may be retrying cases with the same players involved. He said if the same DFS worker, child's lawyer, parent's lawyer, and judge are involved in hearing the case a second time, the result will be the same judgment.

Wright's bill would establish oversight with the creation of a joint legislative committee to review the DFS policy manual.

"Citizens need to have some oversight on that," he said.

Hanaway's bill would establish the Child Protective Services Citizen Review Panel, which would meet at least every three months and would submit an annual report.


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