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Hopes still high for bills to stop Missouri from seizing benefits owed to foster kids

Posted on Thursday, March 28, 2024 at 7:14 pm

Sen. Holly Rehder, R-Sikeston, listens during Senate debate of an initiative petition bill Monday, Feb. 12 (Annelise Hanshaw/Missouri Independent)

Momentum stalled in the lead up to legislative spring break, but proponents of ending the state’s practice of taking Social Security benefits owed to foster kids remain optimistic

By Clara Bates

Missouri Independent

Despite setbacks in both the House and Senate leading up to legislative spring break, proponents of bills seeking to end Missouri’s practice of seizing Social Security benefits from foster children expect to regain momentum on the issue when lawmakers return to Jefferson City next week.

In the Senate, GOP state Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder of Scott City saw her bill hung up in debate when it was heard late last month and earlier this month, with numerous amendments added and withdrawn. There was no vocal opposition.

Since then, Rehder said she’s been working to strip out amendments that could threaten the bill’s passage. She says the bill is “really in good shape” and she “anticipates it getting out this coming week.”

“It’s ready to get brought up, and I honestly think that it’s supposed to be the first bill to get brought up Monday,” Rehder said in an interview with The Independent.

The House version, sponsored by Republican Rep. Hannah Kelly of Mountain Grove, won initial approval but had that vote rescinded in order to remove an amendment deemed problematic. That means the bill still needs to be passed again by the House before it heads to the Senate.

When lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday, there will be only eight weeks left before the session adjourns for the year. And traditionally, getting a bill out of one chamber and into the other before the session’s homestretch improves its chances of making it to the governor’s desk.

The state took at least $6.1 million in benefits from foster children last year—generally Social Security benefits for those with disabilities or whose parents have died. The money is used to reimburse the state for agency costs.

“That is not taxpayer money coming in…That is literally money that is taken in the form of [survivors’ benefits] payments that children are owed because they have lost their parents,” Kelly said during House debate earlier this month.

The House seems likely to give Kelly’s bill final approval without much drama.

In the Senate, factional infighting among Republicans has upended the chamber throughout the session—adding uncertainty to every bill’s fate.

No senator has spoken up against Rehder’s bills during debate, but discussion of various amendments has dragged out and slowed the bill’s progress.

Under the legislation, the state could only use those funds to pay for the child’s “unmet needs” beyond what the division is obligated to pay, such as housing as the child prepares to age out of foster care. The state would also be required to ensure the account in which the child’s benefits are deposited is set up in a way that doesn’t interfere with federal asset limits.

In an interview, Rehder said she has been focused on working with senators to strip out amendments that might be outside the scope of the bill’s subject. Last year, a bill she sponsored to ban sleeping on public land was struck down by the state Supreme Court for failing that procedural requirement.

Rehder said during Senate debate that “as I told the majority of folks that come up and talk to me about the underlying bill…the one thing I’ve requested is that any amendment that gets put on—I’m happy with amendments, I’m not saying don’t do amendments, I’m saying let’s do a limit that across this body we agree on.”

State Sen. Mike Moon, a Republican from Ash Grove, proposed an amendment that would remove the expiration date on a law passed last year that bans minors from beginning transgender health care treatments and limits sports participation for trans athletes.

During a subsequent debate over the bill, Moon said that “after thinking about [withdrawing the amendment] over the weekend, there are some things that I think need to be considered prior to that happening. I may be willing to do that.”

Rehder objected to the amendment for not being within the scope of the original bill, and Moon withdrew it after further discussion with Rehder.

Amendments that have been attached to the legislation so far include Democratic Sen. Karla May’s proposal to add suicide prevention-related phone numbers to those listed on student ID cards. Republican Sen. Rusty Black’s amendment would exempt licensed childcare providers who care for only school-age children from certain compliance requirements. Republican Sen. Rick Brattin’s amendment would add considerations for judges when determining child custody.

Rehder hoped the bill would come up for a vote in the week before spring break, she said, but it didn’t due to a filibuster.

“We had to lay it over to go through these amendments” she said in a recent Senate communications video, “…and I’ll have those senators understanding that regardless of whether I’m for their language or not, if it will kill this underlying bill, that is to help foster children, I’m simply not going to allow it on.”