Missouri First Lady Sheena Greitens says extensive changes need to be made to improve conditions in the foster care system.

Dr. Sheena Greitens

The wife of Republican Governor Eric Greitens appeared before a joint state legislative committee on child abuse and neglect Wednesday, where she outlined steps already taken and efforts in the works to serve the needs of foster kids.

She said the governor’s office is working with Republicans and Democratic lawmakers on legislative priorities in the upcoming session that fall into three groups – protecting kids from abuse and neglect, promoting adoption and supporting families and kids in the foster care system.

Among other things, Greitens said she’d already worked to get Missouri’s child abuse and neglect toll-free hotline to accept calls from out of state area codes.  House Democrat Sue Meredith of St. Louis was surprised the previous restrictions on calls even existed.

“Now, your phone number goes with you when you move,” said Meredith.  “And if you move out of the state, you get to keep your old phone number.  So, we’re getting used to the idea of not dialing just the three area codes we used to have in the state.  That they weren’t taking those calls, I find just absolutely astounding.”

Greitens said that after the governor’s office made several calls, the hot-line began taking out of state inquiries within 72-hours.

House Republican Marsha Haefner of St. Louis, who’d just returned from the National Conference of State Legislators, said a big issue at the gathering was the lack of attention paid to kids aging out of foster care.

“We tend to do as much as we can while they’re in the system,” said Haefner.  “But when they leave the system, the statistics are really pretty scary in that one in five become homeless.  And when we want to deal with opioids and addiction, sex trafficking and all those things, foster kids that leave the system are the most vulnerable.”

Greitens agreed that the path for kids aging out of foster care needs to be improved.  She said the issue is being addressed by the governor’s office in two ways.

First, it has discontinued the state’s practice of charging kids in its custody $15 for usable copies of their birth certificates.  According to the First Lady, the unnecessary expense was preventing teenagers in foster care from acquiring skills such as getting a driver’s license and learning to drive.

Second, Greitens said language is being adopted to allow foster kids to more easily set-up a bank account.

She cautioned that any moves made by the governor’s office can be reversed by a future administration, and stressed the need for lawmakers to engrave the changes into law through legislation.

In addition, the First Lady said several boards that play a role in the child welfare process had been dysfunctional because of excessive vacancies of members working under expired terms.

Four of the six Child Abuse and Neglect Review Boards, which handle cases of people who think they’ve been unfairly cited for poor treatment of kids, didn’t have the members required to meet.

Greitens said the governor’s office has worked to replenish all the boards with qualified appointees.

The First Lady also noted the state has joined current efforts to improving foster parenting.   She said the Children’s Division has enrolled in a new study on parent recruitment and retention.

“The goal is to understand how they make decisions at a number of different points in the process, so that we can understand what makes people continue to be foster parents, what helps them do a good job as foster parents, and why they ultimately decide to either continue or leave.”

Across the nation, 60 percent of foster parents are leaving the system within the first year.  Greitens said she wants to change that number inside Missouri.