Lawmakers call for state to take control of child welfare

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December 15th, 2011

Lincoln, NE – The state of Nebraska should take back responsibility for managing child welfare cases from private contractors. And it should create a new department to handle children’s services. Those were the recommendations of a legislative committee investigating the state’s efforts to reform the child welfare system.

Sen. Kathy Campbell chairs the Health and Human Services Committee. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

The recommendations follow a nearly year-long investigation by the Health and Human Services Committee of Nebraska’s controversial child welfare reform. That reform involved contracting with private agencies for services. But three of five agencies who signed up later dropped out or were terminated amidst financial turmoil. The two who remain were given authority to not only provide services but manage cases last January. But Health and Human Services Committee Chairwoman Kathy Campbell said Thursday that decision should be reversed.

“Case management is the principal responsibility of the state of Nebraska,” Campbell said. “It is a pivotal position for the safety, well-being and permanency of a child, and we see this step as a way to stabilize the system.”

Dave Newell, the head of Nebraska Families Collaborative, one of the two private agencies, agreed there’s a problem, but said it predates privatization.

“Actually, this would be a step backwards,” Newell said. “We agree that the system in Nebraska is broken. It’s been broken for over 20 years.”

Sen. Mike Gloor said the costs of the child welfare system have already risen substantially since privatization. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

Among the problems is a revolving door of caseworkers for children who have been removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect, as well as frequent shifting of those kids from one home to another. Amy Peters, now a 22 year old college student, said she knows those problems very well. Peters was in foster care in western Nebraska from age 13 to 18. She said she lived in eight different foster homes during that time, which was before the current reform.

“As a foster kid, all I really wanted the entire time I was in care was to be like my friends,” Peters said. “I would do everything possible to make myself look like I was normal like my friends were, when really every day that I was at school the biggest thought on my mind is whether or not I’m going to come home and see all my bags packed and have to move again.”

Campbell said she doesn’t simply want to return to the way the state handled cases in the past, before privatization.
“I think if we were only going to “go back there” then it wouldn’t be a good recommendation,” Campbell said. “But the committee feels strongly that the state take it back, but then we’re also going to have to look at how we staff, and how we train, and our expectations, and how that worker then interacts with the judicial system. We’re going to have to improve it.”

Campbell said she doesn’t know how much those improvements, such as more caseworkers, will cost. But she referred to the problems documented in the committee’s roughly 425 page report.

“Once you take a look at this report, I think you realize that we do have to make an investment here,” she said. “I’m not sure that we know how much, but that investment is important to build a system that can be responsive to protecting children.”

But Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island, the committee vice chairman, said costs have already risen substantially under privatization. “We make a recommendation that may, at face value, look like it’s going to be more costly,” Gloor said. “But in reality we don’t think so. I think I’m safe saying that on behalf of the committee. We don’t think so. It may not cost less, at least in the short term. But certainly it’s a better provision of service and cost I think if we follow these recommendations.”

Newell, the private contractor, said one advantage of using private agencies is that the costs have become more visible than they were in the Department of Health and Human Services.

“It does take a lot of money to take care of our kids,” Newell said. “We haven’t been spending enough money on those kids. And so now we are starting to know what the costs are, and people are having a little bit of sticker shock around that. But working together, we will find a system that will work for kids. And we are an important part of that process.”

Executive Director of the Foster Care Review Board Carol Stitt hailed the recommendations, including creating a new Children’s Services Agency. Stitt suggested the Department of Health and Human Services has other concerns that make it hard to focus on children.

“I think one of the things that drives all agencies are budgets,” Stitt said. “And with the Medicaid focus, and the Medicare focus, as well as the many issues that have surfaced in Beatrice, it’s very hard for any one administrator to make all these systems work.”

Campbell said creating a new department would help break down the bureaucratic silos that prevent getting needed services to kids. Breaking down silos was the rationale for combining separate agencies into Health and Human Services in the 1990s.

But Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha says that clearly hasn’t worked, when people are faced with the choice of becoming a state ward or not getting services. And Campbell said the system is broken, and that a new agency would allow the Legislature to focus on children’s problems. Another recommendation is to establish a children’s commission with representatives of the executive, judicial and legislative branches to come up with a strategic plan.

Former foster child Amy Peters said that as the process moves forward, officials shouldn’t lose sight of the lives their decisions affect. “These are children we’re dealing with,” she said. “They’re not case numbers. They’re not commodities. They’re actual children. And so every decision that is made is going to affect their lives one way or another.”

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