Standing Up for Our State’s Most Vulnerable
As we enter the final weeks of the legislative session, the pace of activity has certainly picked up as lawmakers work to accomplish their legislative goals. This week, I was honored and humbled to carry a House bill that aims to make our state a safer place for all children. House Bill 397 includes a wide array of child protection measures, from improving our state’s Amber Alert System to cracking down on those involved in sex trafficking. The measures included in HB 397 strive to stand up for all children and give law enforcement the tools they need. In particular, this “omnibus” child safety bill includes two proposals that I sponsored this year.
Included in HB 397 is my Senate Bill 305. This legislation is designed to improve our state’s child fatality review panels. These important review boards exist in every county in the state with the goal of working to prevent child fatalities. The primary purpose of this bill is to update the confidentiality requirements of these groups so that the information they gather can be used to inform, and more importantly, prevent future child fatalities. Currently, the confidentiality threshold is so high that the Department of Social Services cannot release any non-identifiable, aggregate data, except what is included in its annual report. This valuable information has the potential to go a long way in helping these review boards learn more about child fatalities in our state. Under SB 305, included in HB 397, the department will be allowed to make non-identifiable, aggregate data publically available. By making this information publically available, I believe we are equipping these review boards with the information they need to help prevent numerous tragedies from ever occurring. In addition, this legislation also requires the state review panel to include a summary of county level compliance with our state’s child fatality review panel laws. Unfortunately, there are some local panels that do not meet and have the opportunity to review child fatalities. This language provides a non-punitive, accountability measure to encourage those panels to follow the law. While the changes implemented by SB 305 might seem small, I believe they have the potential to help our state gain a better grasp on how to prevent child fatalities. Each year, our state loses around 1,000 children, and we owe it to the children of our state to learn from and ultimately strive to prevent these tragedies from occurring.
Also included in HB 397 is language from another bill I sponsored, Senate Bill 361. This legislation seeks to protect children from sex trafficking and strengthen Missouri’s Safe Harbor provisions. The intent of these laws is to ensure that victims of trafficking are indeed considered victims and provided with rehabilitative services, rather than viewed as perpetrators of crimes they were forced to commit. Under this legislation, minors forced into prostitution will be legally classified as victims of abuse, and will be afforded the same protections and reporting requirements currently available to victims of child abuse. It also expands the definition of criminal street gang activity to include crimes involving sex trafficking and child abuse. By adding criminal street gang offenses relating to prostitution and sex trafficking to our laws, we are ensuring that the chain of command in organized child trafficking crimes are held accountable and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Finally, this bill includes language allowing for the expungement of criminal records for victims under the age of 18, who were forced to commit these horrific acts. This legislation recognizes that the victims of sex trafficking are forced to participate in these disgusting acts under circumstances that they cannot control. As a result, I believe the victims of trafficking should have the ability to have their records expunged.
I am proud to have carried HB 397 in the Missouri Senate. This bill has the potential to make our state a safer place for all of our children. I firmly believe it sends a strong message to those who wish to harm the innocent — you are not welcome in our state, and we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law. I am very hopeful that this legislation will make it to the governor’s desk for his consideration.
Finally this week, the Missouri Senate approved its version of the state’s spending plan for the upcoming fiscal year. As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, I am proud of the work accomplished by my colleagues. This budget represents our priorities. Once again, our budget includes record funding for K-12 education. It fully funds the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s Foundation Formula, ensuring that every child has the opportunity to receive a world-class education. In addition, we increased funding for school transportation costs by $10 million. In our rural communities, this additional funding will go a long way in ensuring our children safely make it to school and back home. Finally, our budget provides a 3 percent pay raise for our state employees. My colleagues and I recognize that our state employees are vital to the success of our state, and we were proud to join the governor and the Missouri House in providing a pay raise for our hardworking state employees.
Residents from the 10th Senatorial District Visiting the State Capitol
It is an honor to be your state senator and my door is always open to your concerns, questions or comments. Please feel free to contact me at (573) 751-2757 or visit my web page at www.senate.mo.gov/riddle.