The vast majority of the time, the more than 1,200 bills introduced in the state Senate this session are put forth with “no explanation necessary.”
That was not the case this morning as Sen. Mike Cierpiot gave a lengthy explanation to a full chamber of senators — and with this bill, the entire body sat listening to the senator from Jackson County instead of talking amongst themselves. Cierpiot is championing SB 1216, a bill that aims to protect families from “overreach” by the state’s Children’s Division.
The legislation would seek to define what an investigation by the Children’s Division consists of and would require the division to have the responsibility of greater evidence gathering in its initial 45-day report.
Further, it would provide lawyers for low-income families from the beginning of the process — not after it is already underway as is now the case.
For Cierpiot, the matter is personal. From the floor, he discussed his own family’s struggle with a Children’s Division that he said gave far too much power to hospitals, such as Children’s Mercy in Kansas City, over the fate of Missouri families.
He recounted how after a day of shopping last year, a new mother took her baby out for the first time. While adjusting the car seat straps the newborn developed a bruise on its side, and the parents likely overreacted by taking the child to the hospital “just to be safe.”
It was then that Children’s Mercy got a SAFE-CARE provider involved. After viewing some photographs of the child’s bruise, a doctor diagnosed that she “suspected signs of child abuse.”
After two days of bringing both of their children in for X-rays and exams, doctors only found the one bruise on the one child and no abuse on the other child. The next day, child welfare services showed up with law enforcement officials to take the newborn from his mother’s arms.
There was a hearing the following week where the parents explained the bruise was caused by a seatbelt. But also at the hearing, Dr. Jennifer Hanson with Children’s Mercy testified that these parents were abusing their newborn baby.
The case was in Cass County, and Judge Jason Howell explained of his ruling: “I have a judge’s heart and a judge’s brain. My heart tells me these parents did nothing wrong, but my brain tells me I have to follow the law, and the law is clear.”
The law says a SAFE-CARE provider’s word is paramount.
In the Kansas City area, it is common for parents who choose to take their children to Children’s Mercy to have them ultimately taken out of their home, according to Cierpiot, calling it “abducted by Children’s Mercy Hospital.”
After the hearing, Hansen’s involvement in the case would typically end. However, Hansen continued being involved in the case days after her testimony, according to documents showing her imploring the Children’s Division to keep the baby from its mother.
Ultimately, the three-week-old baby was taken from his family for three months.
“I waited until then to file this bill because I didn’t want to upset the bureaucracy and make it tougher on the family,” Cierpiot said.
The response to the story and Cierpiot’s legislation was swift.
Former Judge Darrell Missey, who recently took over the leadership of the Children’s Division, told The Missouri Times he was listening to the speech and was aware of the situation.
Ashley Lawson, the executive director of Missouri Prosper, told The Missouri Times: “We believe this is an important piece of legislation which, if passed, will address a key deficiency in the administrative and judicial processes surrounding child abuse allegations. While the expert witness testimony is valuable, it is not infallible, and can sometimes lead to misperceptions and incorrect presumptions. To protect the rights of Missouri families, our state courts and agencies must consider all relevant information in a fair-and-balanced manner. This bill will make our processes fairer, our families better represented, and, most importantly, keep our children safe.”
Former Rep. Becky Ruth, who was recently named the new Child Advocate for the state, told The Missouri Times that she planned to visit Cierpiot’s office this afternoon to discuss the case and how the state could improve its processes.
Additionally, Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz told The Missouri Times he was planning to refer quickly SB 1216 to begin the process of getting it to the floor.
Scott Faughn is the publisher of The Missouri Times, owner of the Clayton Times in Clayton; SEMO Times in Poplar Bluff; and host of the only statewide political television show, This Week in Missouri Politics.