As the Missouri General Assembly session enters the final weeks, this is the fifth in a series of stories updating the status of key legislative areas.

Child marriage

LEGISLATION: House Bill 1630, sponsored by Rep. Jean Evans, R-Manchester, is working to change Missouri laws regarding child brides.

The bill would require a judicial hearing for 15 and 16-year-olds to ensure the wedding is not forced, as well as eliminate the possibility of obtaining a marriage license under the age of 15.

“What we’re trying to avoid is young women being forced to marry someone who doesn’t have their best interest at heart,” Evans said.

The bill also would prohibit the marriage of a person under the age of 17 to an individual 21 years of age or older. Couples under the age of 15 also would be denied marriage licenses under the proposed bill.

THEME: According to the Kansas City Star, the bill comes at a time when Missouri’s marriage laws have come under fire for contributing to the number of child brides in the United States. Some of these brides are even marrying men that raped them. According to Missouri law, statutory rape is defined as anyone 21 or older having sex with someone under 17 outside of marriage. However, this law becomes void if the couple gets married.

From 1999 to 2015, more than 1,000 15-year-olds married in Missouri, according to data collected by the Kansas City Star. Of these, more than 300 married men age 21 or older.

Missouri child marriages has dwindled in recent years, with only 16 marriages in 2016.

WHO’S SUPPORTING THIS: Representatives from Campaign Life; Missouri KidsFirst; the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence; the Missouri Coalition of Children’s Agencies; National Association of Social Workers; Committee on Human Trafficking at the National Council of Jewish Women in St. Louis

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: Jessica Petrie, representative of the Missouri chapter of the National Association of Social Workers: “Young girls who enter into these early marriages, especially if they’re coerced into abusive situations, have lower educational attainment, higher rates of poverty and are more likely to experience abuse,” Petrie said.“So we think this is an important step to keeping especially young girls safe.”

WHAT’S NEXT: The Senate committee approved House Bill 1630 on March 28. The bill will head to the Senate floor next.

FOSTER CARE LEGISLATION: Four bills were approved by committee and recommended to pass in the House.

One of these bills would allow foster children older than 16 to open their own bank accounts without a cosigner.

"A lot of foster children don't have a trusted adult to cosign for them," legislative director Caitlin Whaley of the Missouri Department of Social Services said.

Another of these bills making its way out of committee relates to foster parents’ personal and financial information. Missouri is the only state to make foster parents’ personal information a public record, according to previous Missourian reporting. This bill would close those records.

A bill that would expand foster children assessment and treatment services and a bill that would give homeless children and foster children more time to comply with immunization requirements have also made it out of committee.

Five other bills related to foster care are in committees.

THEME: This session’s bills related to foster care look to expand foster children’s financial independence, modify the background check process for foster parents and change the personal and financial information of foster parents from public to private.

WHO’S SUPPORTING THIS: Missouri Department of Social Services; FosterAdopt Connect, which serves around 1,500 foster families across Missouri; Great Circle, a behavioral health organization; and the Missouri Office of Child Advocate.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING: Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville, who is vice-chair of the Special Committee to Improve the Care and Well-Being of Young People: “We all want to do what's best for the children."

WHAT’S NEXT: The House likely will vote on the four bills that have been recommended to pass by committees. Generally, these bills, as well as the those in committee, have faced little opposition, according to previous Missourian reporting.

"The speaker of the House wanted to make sure that these bills got a priority," Reisch said. "It is a priority of the governor and the first lady to deal with foster kids and adoptive kids." 

Human trafficking

LEGISLATION: Missouri truck stops, bus stations, some hotels and other businesses will be required to hang posters advertising the national human trafficking hotline by March 1, 2019, because of House Bill 1246. The bill was the first to pass the House and Senate during this legislative session.

People who have been found guilty of first-degree child sex trafficking would be prevented from having custody of a child if House Bill 2336 becomes law. The bill made it out committee and is awaiting action on the House floor.

A bill that would increase penalties for sex trafficking crimes was referred to committee in January.

House Bill 2422, which would create the Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Prevention Act, also has stalled in committee.

THEME: Bills this session about human trafficking have focused on raising awareness, increasing the penalties for related crimes and adding protections for children.

WHO’S SUPPORTING THIS: Central Missouri Stop Human Trafficking Coalition; Special Forces of Liberty; Missouri State Public Defender System; State Auditor’s Office

WHAT’S NEXT: House Bill 1246 was signed by the governor. House Bill 1866 was referred to a House committee on Jan. 17. House Bill 2336 is on the House calendar to be heard for the third time.

Supervising editor is Mark Horvit,

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