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Omnibus ‘child protection’ bill receives final legislative approval

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Lawmakers in Missouri have given their final stamp of approval to an overarching “child protection” bill, which just needs the governor’s signature before becoming law.

On Thursday, the General Assembly truly agreed and finally passed HB 397 with a unanimous vote in the Senate. The House voted 133-6 in favor of the bill on Tuesday.

The measure, championed by freshman Rep. Mary Elizabeth Coleman, started as a measure designed to protect minors from sex trafficking, and through the process, it expanded to include provisions on foster home placement, Simon’s Law, child support, the Amber Alert system, and several others.

“With all the changes it has become an omnibus kid bill, there have been a number of provisions put into it to help the most vulnerable,” Coleman told the Missouri Times. “It is a lot of different ways our children are going to be safer.”

The underlying bill is designed to address the intersection of commercial sex work and the exploitation of children, according to the Republican lawmaker.

Under the bill, the definition of gang activity would expand to include commercial sex trafficking, being under the age of 18-years-old would be an affirmative defense for prostitution, and those previously convicted of prostitution while a minor could have records expunged.

Those three changes are designed to “give more tools to go after those folks who are exploiting our kids and offers more protections for kids that find themselves caught up in commercial sex work.”

But the bill, as approved, doesn’t just stop there. It includes 10 other provisions, some of which have been truly agreed and finally passed as standalone bills.

The bill allows a prosecuting or circuit attorney to convene a review panel to investigate the deaths a minor; maintains relatives should take priority — unless otherwise determined not to be in the best interest of the child — when it comes to foster care placement of the child, with grandparents given first consideration; and permits the Department of Health and Senior Services to deny an application for a child care facility license if the facility’s proposed location is within 1,000 feet of a registered sexual offender.

Hailey’s Law, which modifies the Amber Alert system, was also passed as part of the bill.

“The primary purpose of the law is to try to decrease the amount of time between an officer deciding an Amber Alert needs to be issued and that issuance actually getting out to the public,” Rep. Curtis Trent, who sponsored the House version of the legislation, told the Missouri Times.

The bill does that by allowing seamless communications between the police system and the Amber Alert system, according to Trent. He said the quicker a kidnapping victim is recovered, the better the outcome is, and cutting down the time of an Amber Alert issuance could result in more “good outcomes.”

The bipartisan measure, HB 397, received widespread support through both chambers

“I know this was a labor of love and I know it was a lot of work. I appreciate you leaving your door open on this issue, especially for the young women it will affect,” Democratic Sen. Gina Walsh told Sen. Jeanie Riddle, the Republican who championed the measure in the Senate.

“I thank everyone who has continued to work on this,” said Coleman. “It is really humbling and interesting to be able to see a problem and to hopefully be able to fix it.”

Senate advances expanded child protection, anti-trafficking legislation