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MO House Initially Passes Child Abuse Reform

(KWMU file photo)
(KWMU file photo)


Jefferson City, MO – The Missouri House Wednesday night gave first-round approval to an overhaul of the way the state responds to child abuse and neglect.

It's the latest response to the abuse death of a foster child two years ago in Springfield, Mo.

Governor Holden vetoed last year's reform legislation, saying some changes would cause more harm than good. This year's bill revises some of provisions cited in Holden's veto.

There are more stringent criteria for handling child abuse and neglect cases in the courts. There are also guidelines for involving parents and various advocates in administrative and legal proceedings.

The legislation opens juvenile court proceedings to the public and requires the use of more private contractors for children's and family services by mid-2005.

The reform plan needs one more vote in the House.

Highlights of the legislation:
- Creates an independent child advocate's office with subpoena power to investigate complaints about the state's child protective system.
- Requires the state to continue operating family services offices in each county.

- Requires the state to develop protocols for classifying hotline calls of abuse or neglect based on risk and injury to the child.
- Requires a status conference with parents and various caseworkers within three business days after a child is taken into state custody. If such as meeting is not held, the case is dismissed, but it can be refiled.
- A court hearing on the child's protective custody must be held within 14 business days of its request.
- After a child is taken into custody, a hearing must occur within 60 days on whether the child should remain in state custody and within 90 days on the disposition of the child's case. After that, periodic review hearings are to be held.

- Requires law or juvenile officers to quit questioning a child when he or she requests a parent, guardian or attorney to be present.
- Does not require that interviews of children in abuse and neglect cases be videotaped or audiotaped, but allows such tapes to be admitted in court.

- Requires a "preponderance of evidence" of abuse or neglect to remove a child from a home instead of the current standard of "probable cause."

- Opens court proceedings in child abuse and neglect cases, but not adoption cases, to the public by July 1, 2005.
- Closes proceedings during the testimony of children and victims and when a judge deems it appropriate.

- Requires state employees to be fired in cases where children die or are seriously injured and the employees purposely or knowingly violated rules, policies or laws related to child abuse and neglect. Allows exceptions for employees with excessive caseloads.

- Requires criminal background and protective order checks on all adults in potential foster homes.
- Requires criminal background checks for school administrators, teachers, aides, secretaries, custodians, cooks, nurses and bus drivers hired after Jan. 1, 2005.

- Directs the state to seek private contractors, after July 1, 2005, to provide services to children and families, except that the state would continue to handle the child abuse and neglect hotline, investigations of alleged abuse or neglect and initial family assessments.

- Allows lawsuits seeking damages for childhood sexual abuse to be brought until a person is age 31, instead of the current age of 23, or within three years of when a person discovers an injury or illness was caused by sexual abuse, whichever is later.

- Requires new mothers to watch a video on shaken-baby syndrome before being discharged from a hospital or health care center.

- The state, working with nonprofit and health care groups, shall devise an educational strategy for increasing the number of children tested for lead poisoning under the Medicaid program.

- Lifts the current $2 million annual cap on adoption tax credits against state income taxes, instead applying the cap only to credits claimed by businesses and allowing an unlimited amount of individual tax credits.