Since Missouri voters elected Eric Greitens governor, his wife, Sheena Greitens, has been working on behalf of a group that doesn’t usually get much attention from high profile advocates: the 13,000 children in the custody of the Missouri Department of Social Services Children's Division.
The children include those placed with relatives, adoptive families, residential care and foster care.
Greitens invited advocates for Missouri children to the Governor’s Mansion soon after moving in, recalled Colleen Polak, director of legal services for Voices for Children in St. Louis.
“It was very remarkable,” said Polak, whose agency trains and coordinates advocates for children in foster care. “She basically asked us what’s working well and what are some of the challenges and barriers facing the children that we are working with, and what do you think me and my husband can do to help?”
The foster care and adoption systems are “a priority” for both Eric and Sheena Greitens, said Parker Briden, spokesperson for both the governor and his wife
“They have been working since day one to make a difference for foster families and our most vulnerable children,” Briden wrote in an email.
Changes, minor and major
Sheena Greitens has said having an adopted sister opened her eyes to how complicated fostering and adoption can be.
In October, Sheena Greitens announced that Missouri children in foster care no longer have to pay $15 to get copies of their birth certificates. That's important, Polak said, because foster children don’t receive allowances and foster family stipends may not stretch far enough.
“When a kid is faced with needing the $15, it is often something that they just don’t have,” she said.
In December came another move. Sheena Greitens announced that Missouri had joined the National Electronic Interstate Compact Enterprise. The multistate collaboration is designed to make adoption and fostering across state lines easier by streamlining a process that can become snarled in red tape.
“It requires the assignment of a caseworker. It requires the assignment of a court to oversee the disposition of the case. And that turns out to be very complicated,” said foster care expert Fred Wulczyn of the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall.
Next on Sheena Greitens’ agenda: Making it easier for children in foster care to open bank accounts. In Missouri, minors must have an adult co-signer but foster kids may not have a trusted grownup in their lives.
That step is key for older foster kids as they prepare to age out of the system at age 21, Wulczyn said.
“In these contexts, the state is the legal parent situation. And they have certain responsibilities,” he said. "And why make it harder for kids in this situation to make the transition to adulthood?”
Sponsored by state Rep. Don Phillips, R-Kimberling City, House Bill 1715 to change bank contracts for minors in foster care is on deck for the 2018 legislative session.
“An important thing”
Such changes are the beginning of what Polak hopes will be a positive and productive era for Missouri children in foster care. On her wish list: more foster families to take in and care for vulnerable children and more resources to support the families.
“It would be great if our foster families could have more support and more resources to help them just navigate the challenges of a child who has been taken from their home and their family staying with them and becoming part of their home,” Polak said.
In the meantime, Polak and Wulczyn agree that more attention from Jefferson City makes additional changes likely.
“Any time people in positions of particularly political visibility take an interest in foster children and foster care, that’s an important thing,” Wulczyn said.
“For the children who are involved in this system, it’s everything to them,” Polak said.
- Voices for Children, St. Louis
- Missouri Department of Social Services: Programs and Services for Children
- Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago (for research about children and families)
Follow Holly Edgell on Twitter @HollyEdgell