Bills that sought to reform and improve foster care in Missouri were among those that received broad bipartisan support in the General Assembly's session that just ended.
There were so many reforms necessary, legislators said, that they collected them in — and passed — an omnibus bill that modifies laws relating to foster care case management and criminal background checks and a bill that modifies juvenile court proceedings.
Senate Bill 819, now awaiting Gov. Eric Greitens' signature, establishes a grant program that, if signed, would make money available to meet "critical state concerns;" allow physicians to refer families of children exposed to drugs or alcohol to the Children's Division (within the Department of Social Services); let the Children's Division investigate and report on alleged cases of child abuse and share the report as needed; create a "Trauma-Informed Care for Children and Families Task Force;" permit minors in custody of Children's Division to set up bank accounts; and change other areas of foster care law.
Greitens' approval of the act seems certain. The governor, during this year's State of the State address, highlighted his wish to make sweeping changes to laws concerning foster care. There are 13,000 children now residing in foster care, he said. Greitens at the time said the children not only were wards of the state but are in law and spirit Missouri citizens' children.
First lady Sheena Greitens, who has an adopted sibling, had been working toward improved services for adoptive/foster children since summer 2016.
The first lady said Friday that — while she hasn't done an extensive search to see what other states accomplished during their legislative sessions — her sense is Missouri just enacted some of the widest foster care reform in the country.
"It was exciting and inspiring to see how much people were interested in this and that they worked incredibly hard to protect kids," Sheena Greitens said.
Sheena said she traveled across the state getting input from stakeholders about what needed to be done for adoption and foster care. She hosted close to two dozen policy round tables. Foster care works differently in different areas of Missouri, she said.
Her team looked at other states and what they were doing. It also looked at academic research. By the time her research was done, she had 20 binders filled with printed materials.
"We had family court (people) from around the state for a round table," she said. "By the end of the research process, we had about 12 pages of notes on suggestions and ideas of what needed to be done."
There were many things that could be done without requiring the Legislature to get involved, she said. Other things needed to be statutes.
"It took a lot of different people who have a lot of different roles to identify what needed to be done," Sheena said.
DeAnna Alonso, president of Jefferson City-based Central Missouri Foster Care and Adoption Association, said there are many items in the legislation to be happy about.
When the Greitenses held their first dinner in the Governor's Mansion in 2017, Sheena brought in several foster and adoptive families to discuss the challenges they face, Alonso said. Some of the speakers had gone through CMFCAA programs.
Youth said a hurdle they faced was setting up bank accounts if they had income. Legally, they couldn't go into a contract with banks.
"They talked about how super difficult it was to go to the bank," Alonso said. "What were you supposed to do with your checks? That was a real barrier for kids who were trying to find their way out of generational poverty."
Broadening whom minors can go into contracts with also will allow them to contract for housing, employment, buying an automobile, receiving a student loan, obtaining medical care, gaining admission to educational facilities or being admitted to shelters for victims of domestic violence.
Allowing minors to seek shelter in a rape crisis center instead of a homeless shelter is better for children because it will deter human trafficking, Alonso said. Minor victims of domestic or sexual violence (if they are 16 or 17) under certain conditions will have access to counseling, court advocacy, financial assistance and other services through the act.
The omnibus creates the "Trauma-Informed Care for Children and Families Task Force" to promote healthy development of children and families through support systems and inter-agency cooperation. The task force will look at early identification of children and their families who have experienced or who are at risk of experiencing trauma. One way to look at trauma is through Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), Alonso said.
Most children in foster care have ACEs of four or higher, she added.
Data from a 2016 National Survey of Children's Health show 46 percent of all U.S. children have experienced at least one ACE. ACEs can include physical or emotional abuse, neglect, violence, witnessing a family member's trauma, substance misuse in the household or having an incarcerated household member. Experts say the experiences can lead to negative emotional and physical conditions.
In Missouri, 27.2 percent of children had two or more ACEs, according to the survey. The national average was 21.7 percent, while 47.8 percent of Missouri children had at least one ACE.
Foster children make up a group with some of the highest numbers of ACEs in the state, Alonso said. Many have ACEs of seven through 10.
"The task force may help us examine just exactly what our community needs to do," Alonso said. "It is a great step forward."
The task force will help develop a framework that can quickly refer children and families to appropriate services and treatments. It can help create interventions in schools, organizations, homes and other settings.
It is to begin meeting within two months of Aug. 28 and to terminate by Jan. 1.
Studies have shown ACEs can affect everything people do for the rest of their lives.
Because of studies' outcomes, police departments, community health organizations and schools in some communities, when confronted with a person in crisis, have stopped asking, "What's wrong with you?" and have begun asking, "What has happened to you?" Alonso said.
An important piece of the legislation to Kelly Schultz is a segment concerning maintenance of records of child abuse and neglect investigations. Schultz, director of the Missouri Office of Child Advocate, said the act lengthens the time unsubstantiated hotline calls are to be kept.
Currently, when an investigation of a call to the Missouri Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline (800-392-3738) is unable to substantiate claims made by an adult who has some responsibility for care of children — such as a physicians, coroners, dentists, hospital personnel, nurses and teachers — the record is maintained for five years. Under the act, it will be maintained for 10. Also, all other claims made to the hotline that are unsubstantiated are currently kept for two years. The act would extend that to five.
Just because a claim might be unsubstantiated doesn't mean there wasn't evidence of abuse or neglect found, Schultz said.
"It means there wasn't a preponderance of evidence of children's neglect," she said.
In the past, if an investigation didn't meet that threshold, it was expunged in two years, she said. A few years later, there could be a new claim involving the same child and the state wouldn't know.
"We were asking the state to make those decisions without all the information," Schultz said. "If those records are expunged, we can't make systematic searches and come up with proper findings.
Additionally, under law created by the act, for reports in which investigators aren't able to locate a child alleged to have been abused or neglected, the identifying information is to be maintained for 18 years. Currently, the information is kept for 10.
No fees shall be required or collected for birth, death or marriage certificates if the request for certification is made by the Children's Division, the Division of Youth Services, a guardian ad litem (appointed by the court), or a juvenile officer on behalf of a child or person under 21 who has come under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, the act states.
Preventing the state from charging fees for adoptive and foster children's vital records is a major step, Alonso said.
"That is going to change the game for kids," Alonso said. "Foster kids can now go and get their birth certificates — it's an important piece for them to get a job or get a lease. They had some major barriers attached to that."
The state is "really trying to transform" the way its doing foster care and adoptions, Sheena Greitens said.
"We'll see what the next steps are," she added. "There are a lot more things we'd like to look at. There's more work to be done."