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House passes overhaul of state's child welfare system
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The state House on Thursday passed a sweeping revision to the way Missouri handles child abuse and neglect cases -- a response to the death last year of a 2-year-old foster child.
The legislation makes changes from the moment a hot line tip is received by the state to time when a court decides whether a child should be returned home or left in foster care.
Also new: Most court proceedings and records in child abuse and neglect cases would be opened to the public, and the state would hire more private contractors to provide serves to children and families.
The House passed the "Dominic James Memorial Foster Care Act of 2003" by a 125-18 vote. The bill still needs final Senate approval to go to Gov. Bob Holden.
The legislation is named for a Springfield boy who died last August after being removed from his mother's home because of a domestic disputed and placed in the custody of John "Wesley" Dilley of Willard.
The boy was kept with the Dilleys despite concerns by his biological father, medical personal and some state workers that he showed signs of abuse. Dilley has pleaded innocent to murder for allegedly shaking the boy to death.
After Dominic's death, several state investigations and task forces criticized the foster care system and recommended significant changes.
House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, who sponsored the 207-page bill, said the legislation safeguards both children and parents.
"With this vote we are going to make kids safer," said Hanaway, R-Warson Woods, and "we are going to make sure that parents who have been wrongly accused are reunified as quickly as possible with their kids."
Some legislators feared the bill goes too far by strengthening parents' rights at the potential expense of children. Others complained that it creates numerous requirements for state and local officials without guaranteeing more money for the extra work.
"I understand that many parents feel like they have been unfairly treated ... but the approach in this bill does not seem to recognize how many child are at risk of abuse and neglect," said Rep. Margaret Donnelly, D-St. Louis, an attorney who has worked on child protective cases
"In the name of accountability it takes a very punitive approach," she added.
Among other things, the bill would require the firing of state employees who violate rules and laws related to child abuse and neglect in cases where children either die or are seriously injured.
Deleted from the bill during House and Senate negotiations this week was the potential for such employees to also face criminal charges.
The criminal sanctions had been supported by Rep. Mark Wright, R-Springfield, who brought Dominic's father, Sidney James, to the Capitol this session to support the bill.
"What led to Dominic's death was the fact that people did not do their job," Wright said, "and it's my belief that when you don't do your job, and a child dies as a result of that, you have to be held accountable."
Other provisions of the bill would:
-- Require the state to gradually increase the use of private children's services contractors to handle half of the cases by 2006. The statewide privatization schedule was pushed by the Senate as an alternative to a House plan for three regional privatization projects.
-- Require criminal background checks for school administrators, teachers, aides, secretaries, custodians, cooks, nurses and bus drivers hired after Jan. 1.
-- Require, when practical, that law enforcement interrogations of children be videotaped or audiotaped to be used in court.
-- Allow children currently in state custody only to receive mental health care to be returned to their family's custody while still receiving care through the Department of Mental Health.
Children's services bill is HB679.
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HIGHLIHTS FROM THE MISSOURI LEGISLATURE
State legislators voted to put into law a public alert system used when children are suspected to have been abducted.
The Senate sent to the governor a bill allowing Missouri's list of sex offenders to be posted on the Internet.
Legislative sponsors said their bill to expand Missouri's college tuition savings program appeared to be dead for the session.
The House sent to the governor a bill allowing bonds to be issued to shore up the state's unemployment insurance fund.
The Senate sent to the governor a bill intended to make it harder for state and local governments to restrict the free exercise of religion.