Missouri General Assembly grapples with moral issues of the day
By Allen Palmeri
March 2, 2004
Foster care reform: A problem that resists solution
JEFFERSON CITY – The Speaker of the House of Representatives filed a foster care reform bill Feb. 10 that is 188 pages long. The Assistant Majority Floor Leader compared the Division of Family Services (DFS) to the Internal Revenue Service. A senator is of the belief that the private sector does things better than the public sector.
Rep. Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, Rep. Mark Wright, R-Springfield, and Sen. Norma Champion, R-Springfield, are part of a new breed of Republican leader in the State Capitol. All say that decades of Democrat philosophy and policy have led to an easily identifiable breakdown in Missouri’s ability to protect its foster children.
“What permeates the whole system is a belief (by DFS) that many parents don’t do a very good job of taking care of their children," Champion said. “I think the government goes too far when they do that. Most parents are not neglecting and abusing their children."
Hanaway, whose foster care reform bill was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Bob Holden last year, said it is fair to say that this year’s legislative battle over foster care reform is a clash of two parties’ philosophies.
“I think so," Hanaway said. “I think there are zealots at both ends of the spectrum.
“Some people believe that no matter how bad things are at home, kids are better off in the home they were born into, no matter how brutal the abuse. At the other end of the spectrum are those who think that the state can raise kids better than birth parents. I think the balance has been tipped in that direction.
“What we really want is to be at that fulcrum where if the parents are abusing and neglecting their kids, we want to get them out of there. But what’s really wrong is women who are way too young having children out of wedlock — and drugs."
The problem with DFS
The DFS of the Missouri Department of Social Services oversees foster care services. Problems in the division were highlighted—and politicized—by the 2002 death of 2-year-old Dominic James at the hands of his foster parent. James was from Springfield.
“He died while in protective custody of the state, which is kind of an oxymoron," Wright said. “We’ve had other children die in the custody of the state, and that’s completely unacceptable. When you have innocent children who many times are taken away from their families illegally, unconstitutionally, and then are taken into a system where they’re not protected, that’s completely unacceptable."
Wright said that in his six years of public service in the General Assembly, his office has heard more complaints about DFS than any other state department or division. The facts surrounding the James case simply brought all of that roiling dissatisfaction to a head.
“We see that case workers did not follow up, did not do in-home visits, and left him in a very precarious situation," Wright said. “Visible abuse was going on but yet he wasn’t removed from the home. There were so many policies and procedures that were broken, it really brought to the surface that this is a corrupt and broken system."
Democrats won’t go so far as to call the system corrupt and broken, but they freely acknowledge the need for better care. Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra and a former prosecuting attorney, has had to prosecute adults who have abused children. The foster care debate is very personal to her.
“My priority always is protecting these children who are in these abusive and neglectful situations with their own biological families as well as protecting the children who have been taken from those abusive situations to protect them and place them in a different setting," Bringer said.
Since Republicans control both the House and the Senate, they will be carrying the debate.
Senate President Pro Tem Peter Kinder, R-Cape Girardeau, has called the state’s foster care system “tragically dysfunctional." Hanaway has pledged to pour her heart and soul—the full weight of her office—into reform. Champion has sponsored her own bill and would like to carry Hanaway’s bill in the Senate. All say that now is the time for change.
“I think there is a group of legislators coming into the legislative process who are very much supportive of less government," said Champion, who serves as vice chairman of the Senate Aging, Families and Mental Health Committee.
“They do not want bureaucracy. They do not want government to grow."
The politics of reform
Gov. Holden vetoed Hanaway’s bill last year because he said it lacked the teeth to subpoena witnesses for abuse to make a case.
“The governor vetoed it over partisan bickering," said Kerry Messer, lobbyist for the Christian Life Commission of the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC).
Champion said that with relations as cold as they now are between the governor’s office and the speaker’s office, Republicans need to watch how the foster care reform bill is handled.
“It’s not out of the question that it gets vetoed just because of whose bill it is," Champion said.
DFS has taken some of the ideas in last year’s vetoed bill and implemented them, Hanaway said. And the governor, who is in favor of foster care reform along with everyone else, has issued some executive orders in areas like fingerprint background checks for foster care parents, greater efforts toward placing children with relatives and improvements to the child abuse hotline. Wright said the governor’s actions are not enough.
“Executive orders, rules and regulations can be easily dismissed because there’s no accountability," he said.
“It needs to be in statutes," the senator said. “Just saying we’re doing it is not enough."
Wright took a hit last year when he injected language into the bill which would have held DFS criminally and civilly liable if an injury or a death occurred and DFS policies and procedures were violated.
“The left-wing papers in this state went nuts when I put that in," he said. He eventually had to compromise in favor of the state workers.
“Right now, if another child ends up dead in the system, there’s nothing that these people can be held accountable to," Wright said. “Under the legislation we had last year, they could be terminated if they didn’t do their job right. Now we can’t get rid of them because of the merit system."
Fixing it bit by bit
The state’s child abuse and neglect system has undergone three government reviews as a result of the James case. State Auditor Claire McCaskill has found problems with background checks, databases and the ability to determine the average caseload per foster care worker. Messer has weighed the evidence and concluded that DFS is out of control.
“There’s something wrong when a state agency strikes the kind of fear into a taxpaying family that this agency does, and that’s because there has been a significant amount of abuse of power within the Division of Family Services," Messer said.
Republicans in both chambers want to shift the philosophy of the agency so that it focuses more on providing better care to abused and neglected children and less on snatching them away from good homes. Hanaway, Champion and Wright would all like to move from the “probable cause" standard to one of “preponderance of evidence," which would make it harder for DFS to initially remove a child from his or her parents.
“There are a lot of children who are in the system who have no business being in the system," said Wright, noting that a mother should not have to fear a DFS intervention for spanking her child in public.
By pushing for preponderance of evidence, Hanaway hopes to draw a distinction between the governor’s definition of foster care reform and the definition that is being advanced by the Republican majority. There is a philosophical difference between how the two parties approach DFS. Champion shed light on it.
“I never hear the goal articulated to reduce the number of children in the system through strengthening the families," she said.
Hanaway said the key with any foster care legislation that will be massaged in March and April will be to take care of those who are abused as well as those who are wrongly accused. The speaker has come up with a sound byte to explain what DFS should do: focus on the worst first.
Birth parents should not have to go weeks without seeing their children, the speaker said. Her bill addresses that type of injustice.
“The single most important thing in the bill is that we mandate that the kids and the parents get in front of a judge within 72 hours of any child being taken from their home," Hanaway said. “That protects everybody, because these are highly emotionally charged situations. That allows the birth parents, the caseworker, the juvenile officer, the guardian ad litem and the potential foster parents to all be in front of a judge who hasn’t been in this highly emotionally charged situation and to make a decision."
Champion’s bill would require DFS to notify the child’s parent or legal guardian that the child has been placed in foster care, except in instances of imminent harm. It also stipulates that a child shall not be removed from school for placement in foster care without a court order specifying that that child shall be removed from school.
“The presumption should be that the parent is the best judge of how that child should be treated," Champion said. “Too often our first solution is to get the child away from the parent. Parents are not the enemy."
The Christian solution
Hanaway, a Roman Catholic, Champion, a Pentecostal, and Wright, a Baptist, are all bringing their faith to bear on the issue of foster care reform. As the Republican majority works on presenting its bill to the governor, what can a Christian do to help lessen the state’s foster care crisis?
“Every church in Missouri needs to be involved in what’s going on in foster and adoptive care in their county," Messer said. “Local churches need to be contacting their Division of Family Services office and saying, ’How can we pray for the families involved?’"
Wright draws strength from the Bible verse that indicates that children are a heritage from the Lord. If we as Christians do not take care of these children, he said, who will?
“I have encouraged more Christians to be involved as foster care parents," he said. “I think we have a unique perspective on what families ought to be. These are kids who are coming from broken homes, kids who for the most part haven’t really encountered any type of religious values.
“It could be a valuable service to our community. It could just be a very wonderful cycle that we develop here."