Among the bills the Missouri General Assembly passed on to Gov. Mike Parson for his signature on the last day of the session was House Bill 1414, which strengthens protections for children.
The bill strengthens rules regarding reports of abuse, improves the rights of homeless youth, modifies regulations regarding child care facilities and clarifies foster parents' rights.
It provides several foster care reforms, including mandatory investigations within 72 hours of a report of abuse or neglect. It requires a joint safety assessment tool the state court administrator is to have in place by the end of the year, replacing the existing tool.
The new rule would modify what already exists, bringing it in line with the wishes of people who work with foster children, said DeAnna Alonso, president and CEO of Central Missouri Foster Care and Adoption Association.
The bill calls for a mechanism that allows agencies to use different evaluation metrics (for foster care providers) on a case-by-case basis.
"I thought the bill was pretty good in supporting the foster care situation as a whole," Alonso said.
Some of the new rules come from legislation sponsored by state Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, R-Arnold. Before the COVID-19 pandemic caused statewide closures, Alonso testified in support of Coleman's bill in hearings at the Missouri Capitol.
HB 1414 allows foster parents to gain better knowledge of the child's background.
It modifies the "Foster Parents' Bill of Rights" to require the Missouri Department of Social Services Children's Division and its contractors to provide written notification of these rights at the time a child is placed with the prospective foster parent, if the parent has yet to be licensed as a foster parent.
It also requires them to provide full access to the child's medical, psychological and psychiatric records (including records from before the child was in foster care) at the time the child is placed with the prospective foster parent.
"(Foster parents) can get a full picture. They sometimes don't know what's going on with the kids," Alonso said. "They have the biggest hearts ever and invite kids into their homes. Whenever the phone call comes, they answer it."
Foster children can be disruptive, and without the background informing the foster parents where the children are coming from, the children may end up going into residential treatment — which nobody wants, Alonso said.
It's a good move to get everybody up to speed on the potential foster child's background — otherwise, for somebody who cares for a child 24/7, it can be really difficult, she said.
The investigations of abuse or neglect are done long before Court-Appointed Special Advocates get involved in cases, Capital City CASA Executive Director Gina Clement said.
CASA doesn't take up cases until a court takes custody of a child, she said.
CASA is a volunteer-oriented organization made up of a network of people who believe society has a fundamental obligation to make sure children thrive, are treated with dignity and are kept safe. Its volunteers, appointed by judges, watch over and advocate for abused and neglected children. They try to make certain the children don't get lost in legal and social service systems or languish in inappropriate group or foster homes. The volunteers remain on their clients' cases until the children are placed in safe and permanent homes. The program now serves more than 150 children in Cole County.
Foster parents play important roles in helping children receive support they need, Clement said.
"We encourage foster parents to participate in team meetings. If there are issues, they need to get that information to the team," she said. "A lot of our foster parents do come to court."
CASA wants foster parents to know they are welcome in the court, she said.
"If they are dealing with a child every day, they have better first-hand knowledge of what's going on with the child," Clement said.
One of the challenges facing CASA is there aren't enough potential foster parents for teenagers, Clement said.
Teenagers end up being sent to a facility (out of county) when a family member isn't available.
"Then the facility tends to take a little more control than the teen would like," she said. "The Family First Prevention Services Act is supposed to help with that. It is not coming into Missouri yet."
Within facilities, operators have to balance the issues of care and if they have enough room, Clement said.
The bill is intended to put a focus on family foster homes rather than group homes. When implemented, with limited exceptions, the federal government will not reimburse states for children placed in group care for more than two weeks.
HB 1414 also creates "temporary alternative placement agreements," which allow voluntary placement of a child with a relative in cases where a parent is temporarily unable to care for a child, but removal from the home, through court action is not appropriate.
"I don't think there were any major things that we were opposed to," Alonso said.