JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Mandatory background checks for employees at unregulated child care facilities are among a new set of recommendations released by the House Children and Families Committee Friday.
The recommendations were included in a report on unlicensed youth residential facilities following a public hearing earlier this month. During the hearing, lawmakers heard testimony on allegations of abuse that led to a raid at the Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch and the relocation of 25 children earlier this year.
“The committee concluded that there are numerous facilities in the state that have abused vulnerable children in their care, with no state oversight, for many years,” the report said, noting the committee maintained its belief the government should not interfere with a parent’s choice to enroll their child in a religious program. “Balancing the need to protect children and freedom for parents and religious teaching, the committee makes the following recommendations for legislation in the upcoming session.”
The committee recommended requiring residential facilities to register with the Department of Social Services (DSS). The registration would include proof the facility conducts fingerprint background checks on all owners, operators, employees, and volunteers through the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Failure to do so could result in administrative penalties and misdemeanor charges for facility operators.
Another guideline would see DSS maintaining a website where the public could access reports on substantiated cases of abuse or other complaints at registered facilities. Three reports of abuse in the same facility would lead to the immediate removal of children and the revocation of any licenses under the recommendations.
Additionally, the committee suggested requiring private facilities adhere to minimum safety and health standards and be held to the same local fire and health requirements as any other child care facility.
Committee Chair Rep. Sheila Solon said the recommendations were meant to curb similar abuse in the state’s unregulated child care centers.
“The lack of oversight and enforcement has sent a terrible message that nobody cares about these vulnerable young people,” Solon said in a statement. “As lawmakers, it is our duty to do all we can to protect them and to take every step possible to ensure more children do not suffer similar abuse. The recommendations we have endorsed as a committee represent common-sense reforms that can and will protect the children who have been forgotten and neglected by our system.”
The report was signed off by 12 of the 13 members of the committee. Rep. Dan Stacy was the sole dissenting voice.
“Government action, however well-meaning, does not always serve the best interest of children. I believe that parents, child caregivers, and those closest to the child should ultimately be responsible for ensuring the wellbeing of the children to the best of their ability,” Stacy told The Missouri Times. “And if a group outside of the government, especially one that might have religious expression protections, can help provide those services, that group should be allowed to perform that service without government intervention. The provisions outlined in the Children and Family Committee report seemed to me to violate the above principle.”
DSS and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) are unable to track or regulate such facilities due to their status as religious organizations under current state law, according to the report.