JEFFERSON CITY — Faith-based youth homes in Missouri would be subject to increased regulations and transparency requirements under legislation passed by the Missouri Senate on Tuesday.
House Bills 557 and 560, which have enjoyed broad bipartisan support throughout their movement through the legislature, come in response to reported instances of abuse and neglect of children in unlicensed residential facilities that have alarmed lawmakers.
Under current state law, faith-based homes are not obligated to conduct background checks on their employees or allow the Department of Social Services to inspect their facilities.
The new legislation, sponsored by Rep. Keri Ingle, D-Lee’s Summit, and Rep. Rudy Veit, R-Wardsville, is designed to prevent “bad actors” who the bills’ proponents say exploit those exemptions by setting up homes in obscure, rural parts of the state and take other intentional steps to hide abusive practices.
State lawmakers heard firsthand accounts of that abuse during a hearing in February and moved quickly to fill the existing loopholes.
The laws would newly require faith-based homes to notify the state of their location and provide the state with background checks for all of their employees. Facilities would be subject to fines and misdemeanor charges for noncompliance.
The legislation also creates a process through which the state can promptly remove and interview a child from a faith-based home where there is “reasonable cause” to believe that abuse or neglect is taking place.
After passing unanimously in the House in March, a slightly modified version of the legislation passed the Senate on Tuesday by a vote of 23-9.
Sen. Bill White, R-Joplin, who handled the bills in the Senate, included minor amendments aimed at ensuring due process “for all parties,” including parents, guardians and the facilities themselves.
The legislation received some pushback on the Senate floor from Republicans who agreed with its intent but said neglect and abuse in these facilities is indicative of a bureaucratic failure rather than a lack of sufficient regulation.
“I would contend that we don’t have a lack of enough laws, we have a lack of follow-through on behalf of our bureaucracy,” said Sen. Cindy O’Laughlin, R-Shelbina. “How will passing more laws help if we’re not going to have any follow-through?”
White said he agreed that DSS faces staffing issues and “terrible turnover,” but said that’s “not a reason to not try to do better.
“I think setting up a framework that’s clear about who can do what … it sets up something that isn’t really out there” now, White said. “I think this law overall does a great job of making sure this doesn’t happen again and makes children safer.”
The amended legislation now returns to the House for final approval. If passed there and signed by Gov. Mike Parson, an emergency clause would trigger its immediate implementation.