Missouri Improves On Child Welfare, But Not By Much

Pamela Merritt

One would think that child welfare would be a top priority in a state where politicians running for office regularly list their tradition family values among their qualifications, but that is not the case.

Pamela’s article today provides a challenge: How to hold our representatives accountable.  One way to do that is to participate in the 10Questions project by asking questions of your candidates in local, state, and federal elections.  Check out this post about the project and help make sure your questions get priority

A recent Kansas City Star article boasted the headline Missouri’s child-welfare ranking improves in national study.  I eagerly read the story about The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2010 Kids Count annual report, which is an annual analysis of child welfare statistics around the nation.  What I found was that Missouri’s performance improved slightly, but we shouldn’t break out the champagne and cue the band just yet.  When it comes to making kids count, Missouri, just like a lot of other states, all too often has the wrong priorities.

Missouri ranked 31st among all states and that is an improvement from last year when we ranked 33rd.  However, the 2010 Kids Count study, which uses indicators like child poverty, teen pregnancy, child death and high school graduation rates to track child welfare, warns that far too many children are living in poverty and those numbers are expected to increase.

Over 250,000 Missouri children live at or below the poverty line, an economic marker that indicates children barely have enough support to survive much less thrive.  Although the media’s spin of Missouri’s 2010 Kids Count numbers has been positive, the reality is that our marginal improvement still leaves thousands of Missouri children under-served, vulnerable and at risk.

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It’s true that the report had some bright spots for Missouri.  There were decreases in child death, teen death and teen birth rates while the percent of teens who failed to graduate high school or failed to attend school also declined.  But the infant mortality rate increased by 4 percent and we still rank 40th overall in child deaths for children ages 1 to 14.

One would think that child welfare would be a top priority in a state where politicians running for office regularly list their traditional family values among their qualifications, but that is not the case.  Leaders in the Missouri state legislature have the wrong priorities and Missouri children and families continue to pay the price.  The 2010 Missouri Legislative Session closed with leaders failing to close a jobs deal backed by the Governor.  In a subsequent special session, and after a 20-hour filibuster, lawmakers eventually passed a bill to save 4,000 jobs at a Kansas City auto plant.  At the same time, social service programs that directly impact the lives of children and families saw their already anemic budgets slashed even more.  Yet while failing to address Missouri’s economic challenges and slashing social service programs to the bone, Missouri state legislators managed to pass an abortion restriction bill that will do nothing to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies in the state.

A shinning example of those wrong priorities was Representative Cynthia Davis, Chair of the House Children and Families Committee, who refused to hold a hearing on a bill designed to close a legal loophole that allows unlicensed baby sitters to continue to care for children while being investigated in a criminal matter.  In an email sent to the mother of the child whose death inspired the law, Representative Davis said, “Our committee focuses on abortion issues and we have had a number of pro-life bills to deal with this year. There are over 11,000 babies killed every year through intentional abortion in Missouri alone. Every year we wait to pass reforms that can be corrected by reshaping our abortion laws, we have thousands more unborn babies whose lives are ended in violent deaths. I know that your story does not involve an abortion, but our committee has been charged with this duty and we must fulfill our primary mission.”

It would be easy to dismiss this as just another example of Representative Davis behaving badly, but the fact that she was allowed to continue as Chair of the House Children and Families Committee after publicly declaring that she would only hear bills dealing with abortion speaks volumes about the apathy toward child welfare from the leadership in the Missouri House.

Missouri’s performance in the 2010 Kids Count report is not an opportunity to celebrate; it is an opportunity to examine our policies and our lack of funding for programs that serve children and families.  Missouri politicians aren’t the only ones with the wrong priorities.  This is an election year and Missouri’s performance in this report should have inspired a barrage of questions from the press about how candidates would address our shameful infant mortality rate and whether they have a proactive plan to deal with the anticipated increase in the number of children living in poverty in the state.  Instead there were a series of articles reporting on our improvement over last year’s numbers. 

Missouri children deserve better.  They deserve our focus rather than our apathy.  Our children deserve better programs rather than funding cuts that leave behind programs in name only and eliminate necessary services.  As a Missourian, I don’t look at our improved ranking in the 2010 Kids Count report with pride – we can do better, our children deserve better and our legislators need show just how much kids count in Missouri next Legislative Session.

Click here to see how your state ranked in the 2010 Kids Count annual report.

Commentary Abortion

Standing Under Sprinklers, Missouri Activists Turn Tables on Anti-Choice Community

Pamela Merritt

Missouri legislators protect and fund crisis pregnancy centers, while ignoring how their constituents are affected by violence and health-care disparities. A new campaign is taking to the streets to refocus their attention.

When I found out in 2015 that anti-choice politicians in Missouri had formed the Senate Interim Committee on the Sanctity of Life, I was outraged that they planned to use valuable time and money to bully Planned Parenthood with yet another baseless investigation.

My second thought was that I wished someone would form a committee to investigate the real issues that threaten the lives of Missourians every day.

Erin Matson and I co-founded Reproaction because we believe in the power of direct action; that the current state of abortion access is a manmade humanitarian crisis; and that people must have the right to decide whether to parent and to live in communities free of violence and oppression.

Those core values inspired us to launch the Show-Me Accountability Campaign in Missouri on June 29. Through the campaign we are leading direct actions to hold members of the Senate Interim Committee on the Sanctity of Life accountable, and demanding Missouri politicians work on the real challenges our communities and neighbors face, such as gun violence and Black infant mortality.

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Missourians deserve access to health care and safe communities, but that’s not the focus of anti-choice legislators. Instead, our lawmakers choose to persecute abortion providers and dish out tax credits to sham crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs).

Missourians have had enough. That’s what brought local progressive activists together, led by Reproaction Missouri organizer Zoe Krause, to launch Show-Me Accountability. We gathered on the sidewalk in front of Thrive, one of at least 65 CPCs anti-choice lawmakers champion despite the fact that the centers have a history of lying to patients seeking reproductive health care. Missouri lawmakers have even pushed legislation to guarantee CPCs aren’t subject to regulation or oversight. We chose Thrive as the location of our launch to illustrate the contrast between what Missouri politicians fund, prioritize, and protect, versus what Missourians actually need them to focus on.

Someone turned the sprinklers on at Thrive just as activists started showing up, providing a nonstop shower that drenched people walking or standing on much of the sidewalk in front of the building. It was an old-school disruption move that made it clear they knew we were coming and weren’t happy about it. We shifted down the sidewalk and started to get in formation.

Several interns from Thrive came outside and tried to physically disrupt our work by repeatedly moving between activists and attempting to surround us. But when we engaged them in conversation, they didn’t appear to know much about the services Thrive provides or that CPCs get tax credits in Missouri. As our speakers began their remarks, Thrive counselors in bright orange vests held signs and guarded the walkway up to the building. I’m familiar with the vests and signs because they are usually seen stationed in front of Missouri’s only abortion provider a few blocks away.

The speakers were amazing, their topics a damning indictment of the issues that wither on the vine in Jefferson City while politicians compete for the attention of anti-abortion lobbyists. Kirstin Palovick, organizer for the grassroots LGBT equality organization PROMO, explained why it hurts our state that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Missouri can be fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes, and denied access to public accommodations and services. Cicely Paine, fellowship manager at CoreAlign and board chair for Community Birth and Wellness, shared her experience as a sex educator in Missouri, where access to comprehensive sex education is not a right enjoyed by all. Mustafa Abdullah, lead organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, passionately detailed the real-world consequences of racial disparities in policing and why police violence is a reproductive justice issue.

I was the final speaker and used my time to talk about why the Black infant mortality rate is a public health crisis worthy of attention and urgency. We ended with chants and a few dances through the shower provided by Thrive’s sprinkler system.

The timing for our campaign launch couldn’t have been better. Shortly after the action at Thrive, the chair of the Senate Interim Committee on the Sanctity of Life announced that there would be a press conference in Jefferson City to discuss a report detailing the results of their “work.” So, Zoe and I took a road trip to the Missouri capitol to witness firsthand what the committee had to say and ask some questions.

At around 1 p.m., several anti-choice members of the committee, including chair Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R-Columbia), gathered in the fourth floor mezzanine in the capitol. Neither Sen. Jill Schupp (D-Creve Coeur) nor Sen. Maria Chappelle Nadal (D-St. Louis), the only pro-choice members of the committee, were in attendance. Neither contributed to the report.

As expected, the yearlong investigation found no evidence that tissue has been illegally sold. Sen. Schaefer acknowledged that the report was not an official report of the committee. Instead, the senators used the press conference to fuss about the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision and voice their frustration over not having uncovered much of anything.

“What is clear is there are many things that are unclear,” Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Glendale) said during the press conference.

On that one point, I agree.

It remains unclear how much this investigation cost Missourians. We deserve a proper accounting for just how much we invested in this farce. But when Reproaction’s Zoe Krause asked that question during the press conference, the senators refused to answer.

It remains unclear why a committee formed under the title “Sanctity of Life” failed to investigate why Missourians are at risk of being killed by gun-wielding toddlers, why gun deaths surpass deaths resulting from car accidents, or why Black women are three times more likely to have an infant die before the child’s first birthday.

What is clear is that the committee’s press conference was partisan because the committee formed as a platform for anti-choice propaganda. It is clear that the anti-abortion videos used as the excuse for forming the committee have been thoroughly debunked.

Sadly, it is more than clear that some members of the committee think they can get away with wasting the people’s time trying to score political points with anti-choice groups.

We drove away from the capitol more committed than ever to the Show-Me Accountability Campaign. Missourians deserve legislators who will prioritize real-world issues, and we will demand accountability from those who fail to do so. Media coverage of our launch has already sparked long-overdue discussions about the damaging consequences of our state legislature’s misplaced priorities.

That’s the kind of fertile soil accountability can grow in, and we intend to see it grow in Missouri. We are in this for dignity, justice, and liberation. And we’re just getting started.

News Human Rights

Advocates Cheer New Indian Child Welfare Act Regulation

Nicole Knight Shine

The first comprehensive update issued since ICWA's implementation in 1978, it requires state courts to ask all participants in child custody proceedings whether a child is an “Indian child," legally defined as being a member of, or eligible for membership in, a federally recognized tribe.

A new federal rule issued this month under the Indian Children Welfare Act could keep more Native children in tribal communities, advocates say.

The new regulation requires state child custody proceedings to more consistently apply the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) by imposing several new standards. The first comprehensive update issued since ICWA’s implementation in 1978, it requires state courts to ask all participants in child custody proceedings whether a child is an “Indian child,” legally defined as being a member of, or eligible for membership in, a federally recognized tribe.

The regulation, issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and set to go into effect in December, also clarifies when child custody cases can be transferred to tribal courts, and requires parents and the tribe to be notified when a family is involuntarily relinquishing a child, among other key provisions.

Prior to ICWA’s enactment, an estimated 25 to 35 percent of Native children had been separated from their families in what congressional testimony at the time described as an “Indian child welfare crisis of massive proportions.”

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Dr. Sarah Kastelic, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), called the new federal rule a “historic step” in a “child welfare system [that] still falls short for our Native children.” Native children, according to Kastelic, are four times as likely as white children to be removed from their homes on their first encounter with the courts, even under identical circumstances.

American Indian and Alaskan Native children are overrepresented in the country’s foster care system at more than 1.6 times the expected level, according to a 2007 report by NICWA and the Kids Are Waiting campaign, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts. In Alaska, for example, Native children make up 20 percent of the population, but account for about 51 percent of children in foster care, the report noted.

Proponents of the regulation point to the complex and much-publicized case of Baby Veronica. A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision required Cherokee Nation member Dusten Brown to turn over his biological daughter, Veronica, to a white South Carolina couple who had raised her the first two years of her life, as Rewire reported.

Critics, meanwhile, argue that ICWA’s provisions leave children to languish in foster care longer than non-Indian children.

Timothy Sandefur, vice president for litigation with the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based libertarian public policy organization that has ICWA-related lawsuits pending in state and federal court, said the law’s provisions ignore the “best interests of the child.”

Sandefur said he’d ultimately like the U.S. Supreme Court to find ICWA unconstitutional.

“This is a matter of racial discrimination, because this law creates a separate and unequal system for Indian children,” Sandefur said in a phone interview with Rewire.

A 2005 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office analyzing foster care in four states found “no consistent pattern” between the length of time children covered under the ICWA remain in foster care compared to children who are not.