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IN THE END, MAJOR REFORM GAVE WAY TO COMPROMISE

FINAL BILL IS MORE MODEST IN SCOPE THAN PREVIOUS VERSIONS

By Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

5/16/04

The promises to radically overhaul Missouri's child protection system were made almost as soon as the death of a Springfield foster child hit the state's newspapers two years ago.

But by the time a 189-page bill was approved Friday in the closing min ute of the legislative session, the screams for reform were replaced by the whispers of compromise. The result is a bill that - while making several key changes to state law - is far more modest in scope than legislation previously drafted. As such, Gov. Bob Holden appears likely to sign the bill, after vetoing a more stringent version last year.

If this year's bill becomes law, family court hearings will be open for the first time, parents will have greater standing when their children are placed in foster care, and more of the system will be in the hands of private agencies.

But all in all, those changes pale next to the reforms that would have been if the foster care system's most vocal critics had prevailed. And perhaps no single lawmaker embodied the fire of that movement more than Rep. Mark Wright, R-Springfield.

Wright still counts among his constituents Dominic James, the toddler who died in 2002. His foster father, John Dilley, was convicted of child abuse resulting in death. Wright has always held the system partly culpable for the death, saying state caseworkers ignored warning signs of abuse. Wright also helped to spark a debate on parent rights, alleging that the system often wrongfully removes children from their homes.

If Wright had his way, state caseworkers would face felony charges and civil lawsuits if their negligence were shown to result in the death of the child. At one point, he had such language in a bill last year.

But he's had to settle for less.

The current bill says negligent caseworkers can be fired, but even then only in narrow circumstances. "Now essentially, we're back to the status quo again, " he said.

Time and again in the past two years, reformers like Wright have wanted to transform foster care statutes, only to find political opposition, or the realization that the system is highly complicated. So the bill has gone through round after round of compromise, growing more modest in scope at each turn.

Initially, reformers vowed to privatize a majority of the foster care system within five years but ultimately settled for language that merely encourages further privatization.

They wanted to penalize judges who don't offer speedy hearings to parents whose kids have been placed in foster care, but then left it up to the Supreme Court to regulate the matter.

They wanted to make it easier for those cleared of child abuse charges to have their names removed from a child abuse registry, but realized that it's better to wait for the courts to rule on the issue.

Many like Wright say the reform movement didn't lose steam as much as it faced political realities.

Others point to a number of factors, including the fact that the foster care system has changed in the past two years.

When Dominic died, the state had 12,214 foster children. Now it has 11,366. Many credit improvements in courts, with judges in several districts working to make sure kids aren't languishing in the system.

Numerous divisions of state government also have been overhauled, and th e governor has ordered many reforms in the foster care bill to go forward even before the Legislature acted.

The reform movement also got bogged down by the complex nature of the state's child protection code. It regulates the activities of several stat e departments, dozens of courts, hundreds of employees - and indirectly, even the families themselves.

So even minor details of the bill have been defeated because of their unintended consequences. For example, lawmakers spent two hours debating a provision that sought to show new mothers a video on the dangers of shaking babies. Lawmakers went back and forth on whether the video should be required viewing, or merely offered as an option. In the end, the bill merely requires hospitals to offer the video.

Part of the difficulty in changing the system has to do with the fact that passions run deep at the intersection of government and family.

Throughout this legislative session and the last one, lawmakers have engaged in a philosophical tug-of-war over the rights of parents and how they should be weighed against efforts to protect children.

House Speaker Catherine Hanaway, who sponsored the bill, joined many other lawmakers on Friday in praising the legislation for striking a delicate balance.

Rep. Margaret Donnelly, D-Richmond Heights, said the reforms stemmed chiefly from the premise that parents need greater protections.

"It's the result of a philosophy that gives higher priority to the rights of adults over the rights of children to be safe, " she said.

Donnelly, who has worked in family law, said the reformers started with the presumption that Missouri's statutes needed significant overhaul. In reality, she and others say, the state's policies are sound, but workers need more support to improve services.

"What's been the problem has been the consistent implementation of the policy, " said Steve Roling, who oversees foster care as head of the Missouri Department of Social Services. "What we need are more resources."

Roling praised the Legislature for taking a step in the right direction by spending $9 million this year to reduce caseloads for state workers. Many say the spending increase, which got little attention, could do more to change the system than the 189-page bill.

Meanwhile, Wright acknowledges that the bill doesn't do nearly all he wants it to. But he insists that the passion he has for reforming the system hasn't diminished in the time since Dominic died.

"As far as I'm concerned, we're not done, " Wright said. "This is not going to end it."

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