House debates series of bills reforming foster care

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JEFFERSON CITY — Several bills involving foster care reform, ranging from restricting public access to foster parents' information to improving safety , were debated Monday in the first public hearing of the Special Committee to Improve the Care and Well-Being of Young People.

The committee was formed by Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, in January, after Gov. Eric Greitens dedicated $12.5 million in additional funds from his proposed budget this fiscal year to children in adoptive and foster care placements. First Lady Sheena Greitens has also been vocal in her advocacy for foster families, making it a priority in her agenda.

"The speaker of the house wanted to make sure that these bills got a priority," said Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, who is also vice-chair of the committee. "It is a priority of the governor and the first lady to deal with foster kids and adoptive kids."

Many organizations came out in support of the bills Monday, including the Missouri Department of Social Services; FosterAdopt Connect, which serves around 1,500 foster families across Missouri; Great Circle, a behavioral health organization; and the Missouri Office of Child Advocate. None testified in opposition.

Financial independence

Two bills aimed to make it easier for older children to sustain a living once they exit the foster care system, and both ideas originated from the governor and first lady.

One bill would let children 16 and older open bank accounts independently. Currently, any children under 18 need an adult cosigner to open an account.

"A lot of foster children don't have a trusted adult to cosign for them," legislative director Caitlin Whaley of the Missouri Department of Social Services said. "It allows them to better access a job. If you have an account, you can cash your check versus having to pay with a cash checking service and putting them at risk for those high-interest banking services."

But Rep. Barbara Washington, D-Kansas City, questioned who would guide 16-year-old children, who may not have a grasp of banking knowledge and could hurt themselves financially.

Carmen Schulze, vice president of Great Circle, said many organizations, including hers, provide a state-adopted training curriculum, and the child would need permission from the Department of Social Services Children's Division or Juvenile Court to open an account independently.

The second bill would waive fees for birth certificates for foster children, so getting an ID to apply for jobs would be free. In the hearing, some suggested extending that waiver to age 26.

"In Medicaid programs, we cover children under their parents until age 26," policy director Judy Dungan of Kids Win Missouri said. "The state is their parent, and that makes a lot of sense as well."

Privacy for foster parents

Missouri is currently the only state where personal and financial information of foster parents is accessible to the public under open records laws, according to the National Counsel for Adoption.

A proposed bill would close public access to that information. This will help stop the "chilling effect" of parents reluctant to join the foster system due to lack of privacy, bill sponsor Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters, said.

Neither Cornejo, nor witnesses who testified for the bill were able to provide statistics proving the existence of "the chilling effect," but much anecdotal evidence was offered. Director Kelly Schultz of the Missouri Office of Child Advocate said she was a former foster parent herself.

Foster parents must disclose financial information, address and phone numbers, and may divulge personal details that could be relevant to their handling of traumatized children.

"These are records we want the Children's Division to know," Schultz said, "because it does impact the care of children in their home."

Potential foster parents might withhold important personal details if they know that information could be public, she said.

Washington questioned how much privacy should be given, pointing to multiple instances in Kansas City where she said abuse took place for years partly because no one knew about it.

"Is it not fair for neighbors to know what's going on in their neighborhood?" she said. "It can make a neighborhood become a village where everybody can make sure that this child is being protected, because foster care children do need that extra protection."

Rep. Hannah Kelly, R-Mountain Grove, interjected, noting the counties she represent are rural, where people are spread apart and don't have a close community. She also said many foster parents have approached her about concerns regarding their privacy.

The bill has a provision which would give discretion to the Department of Social Services to disclose the records to media in cases of child fatality or near-fatality.

Safety reform and other bills

Currently, foster parents must submit three sets of fingerprints every two years when they renew their license for background checks.

A bill would get rid of that fingerprinting process, and instead, the Department of Social Services would use a Missouri State Highway Patrol program that would provide ongoing electronic background checks to be regularly updated.

That way, Social Services would be notified immediately when a crime is committed by a foster parent instead of finding out about the crime when the two-year renewal time arrives.

"This will give more ease to foster parents as well as provide more security to foster children," bill sponsor Rep. Sonya Anderson, R-Springfield, said.

Generally, there was no major disagreement on all the bills.

"This is not a controversial committee," Reisch said. "We all want to do what's best for the children."

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, horvitm@missouri.edu.

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