Senator David Sater’s Capitol Report for the Week of July 10: Creating a Better Foster Care System

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JEFFERSON CITY — There are over 13,000 children currently in Missouri’s foster care system. Due to circumstances beyond their control, these children are wards of our state. That means that they are our responsibility and, in a way, are all our children. They are Missouri’s children. Over time, some of these 13,000 children will return to their families, some will be adopted and some will remain in the system until they age out. Sometimes, these children come to the state from difficult and even tragic situations. Many are escaping abusive homes or have seen or experienced violence. Others have been neglected or outright abandoned by those who should love them the most. Out of that tragedy and instability can come hope and opportunity to give these children a better life. Each and every one of these children deserves a chance to be loved, thrive and make their way in the world. In other words, they deserve our best.

In the past, Missouri, and our country as a whole, hasn’t always done a good enough job preparing foster children for the future or giving foster parents the support they need. We know the long-term outlook is more challenging for children in the foster care system. Research conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative found that for children emancipated from the foster system: nearly 40 percent experience homelessness; 60 percent of young men are convicted of crimes; over 50 percent are unemployed; and 50 percent will become involved in substance abuse.

Some of the shortcomings of the foster care system are simply because caring for children in these situations can be challenging, and just like raising children in a traditional, nuclear family, there is no instructional manual. It’s tough and it requires hard work, patience and perseverance. This part of the problem is not easily fixable and will likely always be a challenge. Some of the failures are the result of a foster care system that is often not adaptable, too bureaucratic, and not focused on what’s most important – the best interest of the child. This part of the problem is something, hopefully, we are making progress on in the Missouri General Assembly. A few weeks ago, Gov. Greitens signed my Senate Bill 160, the Foster Care Bill of Rights. The first line of the Foster Care Bill of Rights states that the “best interests of the child shall be the first priority of the children’s division.” This is really the heart of the issue. Everything that is done in the foster system should always be done in the best interest of the child. The bill also requires the Children’s Division to provide every school-aged foster child — and his or her foster parent — with an age-appropriate orientation and explanation of the bill of rights. This Bill of Rights emphasizes the importance of familial relationships for foster children and will help educate all involved of what is to be expected through the foster care process, including the obligations of the Children’s Division and what foster care children are entitled to in the process. This will not fix every problem, but it is a start and will be a springboard to more work and focus on what we can and should fix in the foster care system.

As is the case with many bills in the legislative process, SB 160 was amended. In this case, I think the bill was made stronger and addressed a number of important issues related to child protection. First, language was added allowing the Children’s Division to retain records in child abuse cases where the perpetrator can’t be determined. This was necessary because of a recent court decision that ordered the Children’s Division to destroy about 11,000 records in these types of cases. This judge’s decision was wrong and shortsighted as new evidence could become available that might help identify who these perpetrators are, and if the Children’s Division would have been forced to destroy these records they would have no way to pursue the investigation. The bill also contained language extending the expiration date of the Joint Committee on Child Abuse and Neglect. This committee has been instrumental in assessing how agencies at all levels of the state handle cases of child abuse and neglect, identifying problems and recommending ways we can reform the court system, foster care system, and help law enforcement to best protect children.

As a parent of two adopted children, I know firsthand what a difference we can make in a young person’s life by loving them and giving them the tools they need to succeed. As a lawmaker and chairman of the Seniors, Families and Children Committee, I know that many of our state’s children have been victimized and need better protection and advocacy in our state law. My hope is that we can work together as a state to bring these goals together. Let’s roll up our sleeves and create a better foster care system in Missouri. Let’s put our heads together and make laws that protect our children and punish the people that hurt them. This is and will continue to be one of my priorities as your state senator.

As always, I welcome your ideas, questions and concerns about Missouri government. You may contact me at the State Capitol as follows: (573) 751-1480, or by writing to Sen. David Sater, Missouri State Capitol, Room 416, Jefferson City, MO 65101.