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Missouri House and Senate advance bill stopping seizing of foster kids' owed benefits

A child leaving into green pastures. Foster kids. Missing kids. Runaway.
Isabel Seliger
Special to NPR
The Missouri Senate gave initial approval to legislation that would end the state’s practice of seizing Social Security benefits from foster children.

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Senate gave initial approval Tuesday afternoon to legislation that would end the state’s practice of seizing Social Security benefits from foster children.

The bill needs a final vote in the Senate before heading to the House.

Wednesday morning, the House followed suit by unanimously approving its version of the bill and sending it to the Senate — providing two possible vehicles for the proposal to reach the governor’s desk.

The state took at least $6.1 million in benefits from foster children last year — generally Social Security benefits for those with disabilities or whose parents have died. The money is used to reimburse the state for child welfare agency costs.

It’s a decades-long practice that has come under increased scrutiny across the country over the last few years. Several states, including Arizona, New Mexico and Oregon, have stopped the practice.

Under the legislation, Missouri could only use those funds to pay for the child’s “unmet needs” beyond what the state is obligated to pay, such as housing as the child prepares to age out of foster care. The state would also be required to ensure the account in which the child’s benefits are deposited is set up in a way that doesn’t interfere with federal asset limits.

The legislation is sponsored by a pair of Republican state lawmakers: Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder of Scott City and Rep. Hannah Kelly of Mountain Grove.

While there was no opposition voiced to the bill, it was hung up prior to legislative spring break earlier this month when numerous amendments were added and withdrawn.

Rehder said she had been focused on working with senators to strip out amendments that might be outside the scope of the bill’s subject. Last year, legislation she sponsored to ban sleeping on public land was struck down by the state Supreme Court for failing that procedural requirement.

The amendments that ended up included in the bill were thoroughly vetted, Rehder said, to make sure they fit under the title “relating to the care of the child.”

Those include:

  • Republican Sen. Rusty Black’samendment which would exempt licensed child care providers who care for only school-age children from certain compliance requirements; 
  • Republican Sen. Rick Brattin’samendment which would add considerations for judges when determining child custody;
  • Democrat Sen. Doug Beck’s amendment which would prevent child custody in paternity action to a parent who has been found guilty or pled guilty to certain offenses when the child is a victim;
  • Republican Sen. Andrew Koenig’s amendment which would require that Children’s Division, when possible, places foster children with families of the same religious faith as their biological parents or the child;
  • And Rehder’s amendment which would forbid juvenile courts from refusing to reunify a parent utilizing medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorder with their child. 

Despite Rehder’s effort to rein in amendments, Republican state Sen. Mike Moon of Ash Grove raised procedural concerns that the bill still wasn’t narrowly tailored enough to pass the single subject requirement.
“It’s not because I’m opposed to your effort,” Moon said, “it’s just my interpretation of what the constitution says.”

Despite Moon’s concerns, the bill was approved by the Senate on a voice vote.

Kelly said she’s been involved in foster care policy for years because her daughter came into her life through the foster care system.

“This issue became part of my heart,” she said. “We have to make sure that we do what’s right by the kids.”

And it’s not just a financial issue, she said.

“For the kids who lost their biological parents, these benefits are in some cases the last tangible tie to your parents,” Kelly said. “It helps to create stability in the heart and mind. It’s just so hard for me to put into words, but it’s about more than the money.”

This story originally was published in The Missouri Independent, part of the States Newsroom. The Independent’s Jason Hancock contributed to this story.

Clara Bates covers social services and poverty for The Missouri Independent.