Parents could temporarily give up custody of children under Koenig’s proposed law

By Titus Wu
Columbia Missourian

JEFFERSON CITY— Parents facing crisis situations could give custody of their children to individuals through private organizations without fear of legal repercussion under legislation being considered by the House.

Two Senate bills enacting such a change, along with other reforms, made their debut earlier this month in a Missouri House of Representatives committee hearing.

SB 672, the Supporting and Strengthening Families Act, is sponsored by Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, who represents Sunset Hills in the Senate. It would allow parents who are struggling to care for their children to transfer custody to an individual through a private child services organization for a year at most.

“Sometimes you have a parent who needs drug rehabilitation, or they lost their job and are homeless, and they just can’t take care of kids for that period of time,” Koenig said. “They need some help. This incentivizes that help by not penalizing them.”

Parents would be able to use power of attorney to transfer custody of their child through a church or child-placement program, and those parents would not be liable for abandonment, abuse or neglect. Parents would not be deprived of any custodial rights in such a situation, and no state resources are used.

Parents already use such services in Missouri, but there is nothing in the law that specifically authorizes it, and the proposal adds requirements for caregivers and legal protection for parents.

The key factor here is that “parents are not neglecting or abusing their children,” said Christine Corcoran, a director of Bethany Christian Services, which runs the Safe Families for Children program that helps find host families for children whose parents are temporarily unable to care for them. “The parents just have no resources,” she said, and therefore, the children shouldn’t be automatically placed into foster care.

Children in the Safe Families program stay an average of 40 days. Koenig said other states have similar laws, including Oregon, where after legislators passed this law, children entering foster care dropped 20 percent within two years.

Parents already can transfer their powers and custody to another individual, but this bill expands that to service organizations and “puts in place safeguards so that we know children aren’t going into bad homes,” said Scott Penman, a lobbyist for FosterAdopt Connect.

In many cases, Corcoran said her program gets referrals by child abuse investigators who do not have enough information to determine there is abuse or neglect, but the children need a safe place to stay. In response to this, the bill would require those hosting the child to be mandated reporters.

Additional requirements include background checks for whomever the child is placed with.

Koenig’s bill had been brought up in past legislative sessions but hasn’t passed. He said it was because it was always part of other bills that contained other language that lawmakers disagreed with.

Corcoran, who has worked 12 years for the Department of Social Services, said she believes the proposed Supporting and Strengthening Families Act would have a fundamental impact.

“Many of the fatalities (in my 12 years) were left in the care of a paramour that the mother didn’t know really well,” she said. “Many of the moms that we serve don’t have people that they know very well that they could leave children with for extended periods of time. This really prevents that.”

SB 672 was put on hold, as Rep. Martha Stevens, D-Columbia, said she wanted to do more research before voting. No one testified in opposition to the bill.

But the committee did pass SB 819, another foster care bill, with no opposition.

The legislation addresses a discrepancy in current law that says children’s service providers under the state have a 30-day time frame to develop a case-management plan for foster youth, while private providers that are contracted with the state only have 14 days.

Sponsored by Sen. Mike Cunningham, R-Rogersville, the bill would allow 30 days for private children’s services providers contracted with the state to create plans. The bill also would require the Missouri State Highway Patrol to provide ongoing electronic background checks for all foster parents.

In addition to bringing the two on par, it avoids the need to rush to create a plan for the children, Cunningham said.

Background checks for foster parents only happen every two years, and in previous hearings, the proposed ongoing electronic background checks were said to provide more security to foster youth.

Discussion of these bills comes at a time when both first lady Sheena Greitens and the Missouri Legislature have made foster care reform a priority and are trying to push through such bills.