Meister: HHS "horribly broken"


October 7th, 2010

By Robyn Wisch

Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services is “horribly broken.” That’s according to gubernatorial candidate Mike Meister, who said government needs to get back to taking care of its people.

Speaking outside the Douglas County Youth Center, a detention facility for troubled teens, Mike Meister said if Nebraska doesn’t fix its broken child welfare system, more young people will end up in gangs and juvenile detention. Meister, a Democrat, criticized his Republican opponent, Governor Dave Heineman, for his administration’s efforts to privatize foster care. In the last few months, three of five agencies contracted by Nebraska to care for state wards have dropped out, citing, primarily, financial losses.

Mike Meister, speaking to reporters outside the Beatrice State Developmental Center (Photo courtesy Meister Campaign)

“Health and Human Services has now been gutted, and we’re asking them to take it over,” Meister said. “But they don’t have the resources to do that.” “It’s a big problem,” he said, “You can’t ask somebody who’s a mom and pop grocery store owner to come in and take over the mega mart, it doesn’t make sense.” Meister added the private agencies need to be taken “out of the equation.” He said, “We need to put the money back into the system and hire social workers so we get people on the ground taking care of families on the spot.”

Todd Reckling is the Director of the Division of Family Services for HHS. In an earlier interview, Reckling said he continues “wholeheartedly” to support the goals of child welfare reform, which is to transition more children to in-home care. The reform process is “dynamic and fluid,” he said, and the state continues to make adjustments. But Meister also pointed to the troubled Beatrice State Developmental Center as evidence of the failures of HHS, and said the Department is dropping the ball on its most essential government function – “taking care of the least of our brothers.”

“I don’t know of any other place in the country where we call the head of HHS a CEO,” Meister said. “It’s not a corporation. Children are not for-profit entities, they’re not commodities to be bought and sold.”

Meister proposed HHS be broken up into smaller, regional centers across the state. And he slammed plans to set up four call centers across the state to replace some local offices. HHS Spokeswoman Kathie Ostermann said the call centers will only handle public assistance cases, not child welfare, but once they’re up and running, will likely result in cuts to case worker staff. She said she’s not sure what Meister means by regionalizing the Department. HHS has five service centers across the state, she said, with staff in each location. Governor Heineman’s office referred all requests for comment to HHS.

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