Senate returns foster care bill

Wednesday, May 14, 2003

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- A bill overhauling Missouri's procedures in child abuse and neglect cases was approved Monday by the state Senate, which returned it to the House for additional consideration.

Prompted by last August's death of 2-year-old foster child Dominic James of Springfield, the bill won Senate approval on a 22-11 vote after five hours of debate.

The measure's centerpiece is a major revision in how the Division of Family Services deals with foster care cases. But there are numerous other provisions on the state's responses to the abuse and neglect of any child.

As approved by the Senate, the bill differed in several respects from the version sponsored by House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, and approved earlier by that chamber. A House-Senate conference committee was appointed late Monday to negotiate a compromise version.

Sen. Charlie Shields, who handled the bill in the Senate, said he was pleased with the Senate version, although he expects it to be revised further.

"This bill changes in a big way how we handle the foster care system and it adds a number of safeguards," said Shields, R-St. Joseph. "A situation like the one involving Dominic James could not occur under this bill."

Under the Senate version, a new Office of the Child Advocate for Children's Protection and Services would be created to monitor programs offered by the Department of Social Services, which oversees the family services division.

The child advocate would have access to the names of all children in protective services.

DFS would be required to provide standards and training for the licensing of potential foster parents, and criteria also would be established to evaluate foster parents.

The division also would be required to establish protocols for ensuring a child's safety and a system of due process for those accused of neglect and abuse.

On Feb. 1, 2005, the Department of Social Services would have to issue a report to the governor and lawmakers regarding the number of children receiving protective services in Missouri.

Also under the bill, the Department of Social Services would have to perform more detailed background checks of those seeking to become foster parents. In addition, the bill speeds up court custody proceedings for children removed from their parents and opens most such proceedings and records to the public.

Sen. Patrick Dougherty, a longtime advocate on children's issues, criticized the bill as doing too little to protect children against abuse and neglect.

"It's heavily loaded against the kids of this state," said Dougherty, D-St. Louis.

Dominic's foster father, Willard resident John "Wesley" Dilley of Willard, has pleaded innocent to murdering the toddler and is awaiting trial.

Dilley was a foster parent despite having pleaded no-contest earlier to a civil restraining order. Authorities have said Dominic had been violently shaken, and his biological father has said the toddler showed signs of abuse before he died.

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