JEFFERSON CITY — Legislators fell short Wednesday in an effort to override Gov. Bob Holden’s veto of a bill that would have made sweeping changes to the state’s child abuse and neglect system.
The House voted to override Holden’s veto by an announced vote of 95-55 — far short of the 109 votes required to obtain the necessary two-thirds majority.
The legislation was prompted by last year’s death of 2-year-old Dominic James, who died after being removed from his mother’s home in Springfield, Mo., and placed in foster care. His foster father, John Dilley, of Willard, has pleaded innocent to murder and is awaiting trial for allegedly shaking the child to death.
The bill would have set new criteria for handling abuse or neglect allegations, granted more rights to biological parents and threatened to fire state employees if they violated rules in cases where children were harmed.
Additionally, the bill would have made most court proceedings and records in child abuse and neglect cases public. It also would have set a goal of having private contractors provide 50 percent of some children and family services within three years. About 12 percent of the state’s caseload is now handled by contractors.
In May, the legislation had passed the House on a 141-14 vote. But many Democrats who previously voted for the bill switched Wednesday to uphold Holden’s veto.
Holden claimed some of the changes mandated by the bill could have caused more harm than good. He criticized the pace and extent of the privatization efforts, expressed concerns about a change in the standard of proof for removing children from homes and questioned a provision requiring that interviews of children in abuse and neglect cases be videotaped or audiotaped whenever possible.
Holden also raised concerns about a section reducing the subpoena powers of the Department of Social Services in such cases.
In trying to persuade colleagues to override the veto, House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, who sponsored the bill, pledged to fix the subpoena error and consider any other revisions when lawmakers return for their regular session in January.
“There are some problems with this bill,” said Hanaway, R-St. Louis County. “But there is much that this bill does that will improve the quality of foster care in this state.”
Some Democrats said it’s better to start fresh with foster care legislation next year than to have a problematic law in place.
Democratic Rep. Margaret Donnelly, a St. Louis attorney who has represented children and parents in alleged abuse and neglect cases, was one of the few lawmakers to vote against the bill both in the initial vote as well as on the override attempt.
“This bill, despite good intentions, I see now as a random collection of ideas on how to improve our child welfare system in a way that will actually harm children,” she said.