JEFFERSON CITY, Mo – The goal of Missouri KidsFirst is to protect children from physical and sexual abuse. That’s much easier to do from one of the seven child advocacy centers the association represents, difficult from a state policy perspective.
Emily van Schenkhof is the lobbyist for the association. The group focuses on getting harsher penalties for offenders and to bolster the efforts of those working on the front line, particularly child services investigators.
The association was lobbying for both of those aims this past week.
Van Schenkhof has been a regular in budget meetings over the past month. KidsFirst is fighting for more money to be appropriated to the children’s division. Gov. Jay Nixon promised $6 million more to the children’s division in his budget and the House followed suit.
“It’s a very smart package to address turnover problems,” van Schenkov said.
There is high turnover with abuse inspectors because investigators are constantly investigating appalling crimes.
“They see these horrible things happen to children and it wears on them,” van Schenkhof said. “For their own well-being they decide to not do it anymore.”
The nature of the job can’t change. However, investigators are also underpaid, overworked and have no opportunity for advancement except taking a supervisory role away from the field. Van Schenkhof said that as soon as investigators gain enough experience they are burnt out and overqualified for their salaries.
The appropriations van Schenkhof is fighting for would increase mobility among investigators to avoid burn out, would create new positions for investigators in the field and raise every investigators salary.
The budget passed by the House included all of these provisions. Van Schenkhof said one of her proudest moments as a lobbyist was when Representatives Sue Allen, R-Town and Country, and Jeremy LaFaver, D-Kansas City, were arguing for those appropriations on the floor. She said working with budget chairman Rick Stream, R-Kirkwood, has been a pleasant experience.
She describes Nixon as a champion of “team public safety” and a definite supporter of increasing funding to the Children’s Division.
Despite these positive steps, there was a setback in Senate Appropriations committee this past week. The committee took away funding for all the provisions except a $2,000 raise for investigators.
Van Schenkhof believes Nixon and the House will fight to put the appropriations back into the budget.
“I appreciate members of the House for recognizing the importance of this issue and including this critical funding in their version of the budget,” Nixon said in a press release. “Unfortunately, the Senate Appropriations Committee — just hours after adding $33 million for a new State Historical Society building — decided to zero out these resources, with no explanation, during markup earlier this week. It’s often said that budgets are about priorities, and a budget that cuts funding to keep abused children safe, but adds funding to build a brand new government building – does not reflect our priorities or our values as Missourians.”
Van Schenkhof’s other big project was working on the Criminal Code provisions, sponsored by Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, that were recently passed by the Senate.
Many child abuse laws were reworked. A crucial one for KidsFirst was adding incest as an aggravating factor in sex abuse cases. VanSchenkhof said about two thirds of all child sex abuse crimes are committed by a relative. The previous law included factors for ritualistic ceremonies.
“This reflects the reality of what rape looks like,” she said.
KidsFirst was part of a coalition of organizations – the Missouri Bar, Missouri Prosecutors and even librarians – lobbying for the criminal code revision. Ironically, Nixon has expressed concerns about the length of the criminal code legislation. The Senate cut about 300 pages from the bill, shaving it from about 900 to 600 pages. With the changes, van Schenkhof believes Nixon will sign the bill into law.
KidsFirst is relatively young association within the Capitol, only lobbying over the past three years. This recent session the group has been especially active, lobbying for or against almost every bill involving children.
“On a very personal level, I feel it’s an adult’s job to keep children safe,” van Schenkhof said.