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When he lays out his agenda for the 2021 legislative session Wednesday, improving Missouri's foster care system will be among House Speaker Rob Vescovo's top priorities.

And for Vescovo, who is kicking off his first year as speaker, this issue is deeply personal.

"I spent the first 15 months of my life in foster care," Vescovo, R-Arnold, said in an interview with the Missouri Independent. "My sisters were adopted. My brothers were adopted. We were all adopted out of foster care. There are 14,000 children in foster care in this state, and I think we should do everything we can to give these children the opportunities that I had."

A wide range of bills already filed are aimed at foster care and adoption.

Democratic Rep. Keri Ingle, of Lee's Summit, has proposed a pair of bills outlawing discrimination against perspective foster families based on sexual orientation, gender identity or religion. Republican Rep. Ron Hicks, of St. Charles County, is pushing to ensure those who have a medical marijuana card aren't prevented from adopting a child.

Republican Rep. Chris Dinkins, of Annapolis, is sponsoring a bill that would require foster care cases be given priority over criminal cases on a court docket. And legislation from Democratic Rep. Raychel Proudie, of Kinloch, would cap out-of-pocket legal expenses for adopting a child at $1,000.

However, when Vescovo discusses his top priorities, he specifically points to two bills sponsored by Republican Rep. Hannah Kelly, of Mountain Grove.

One would authorize an income tax deduction for expenses connected to providing care as a foster parent. If the foster parent provides care for at least six months, the deduction would be $2,500 for an individual or $5,000 for a married couple.

The other creates a tax credit for adoptive parents. Currently, the state provides a $10,000 tax credit to any person who adopts a special needs child. Kelly's bill expands that to any adoption while still giving priority to special needs adoptions.

Like Vescovo, Kelly brings a personal connection to the issue.

When she was first elected to the House in 2016, she realized she knew little about the foster care system.

"I'm a hands-on learner. And so I took the foster parent training," she said in an interview with the Missouri Independent. "I wanted to walk through the training, I wanted to meet like-minded people. I wanted to see what foster parents were saying on the front line."

And though it wasn't her intent when she started, Kelly said she "wasn't able to say no to kiddos who needed a safe place to call home."

So she became a foster parent.

"And one of those kids ended up staying a long time, and I ended up adopting her," Kelly said. "She's now a successful independent adult, and she's the pride of my life."

At a time when the state needs more people to be foster parents, Kelly said, the state should be doing what it can to encourage people to get involved.

"I think it's money well spent," Kelly said of her legislation. "Because we're asking these parents to invest in these kids that are in state care. And we're telling them that if you invest, we're going to make sure we have your back from a financial standpoint."

Because she is sponsoring legislation pertaining to foster parents, Kelly said she has decided to stop fostering children in order to avoid any insinuation she is involved with the bill for her own financial gain.

"I don't want anything to be misconstrued," she said. "And I want, you know, part of my whole mission is to help these kids. And this is a way that we can do it. I believe we have a shot to get something done, and I don't want to mess it up."

There's lots of people in this state who want to be parents, Vescovo said, and government can do a better job of "enacting policies that would give those potential parents the opportunity to adopt or to be foster parents."

The Missouri Independent is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization covering state government and its impact on Missourians.

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