Lawmakers call for state to take control of child welfare
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 childrenâ€™s services. Those were the recommendations of a legislative committee investigating the stateâ€™s efforts to reform the child welfare system.
The recommendations follow a nearly year-long investigation by the Health and Human Services Committee of Nebraskaâ€™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.
â€œCase management is the principal responsibility of the state of Nebraska,â€ Campbell said. â€œIt 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.â€
Dave Newell, the head of Nebraska Families Collaborative, one of the two private agencies, agreed thereâ€™s a problem, but said it predates privatization.
â€œActually, this would be a step backwards,â€ Newell said. â€œWe agree that the system in Nebraska is broken. Itâ€™s been broken for over 20 years.â€
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.
â€œAs a foster kid, all I really wanted the entire time I was in care was to be like my friends,â€ Peters said. â€œI 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 Iâ€™m going to come home and see all my bags packed and have to move again.â€
Campbell said she doesnâ€™t simply want to return to the way the state handled cases in the past, before privatization.
â€œI think if we were only going to â€œgo back thereâ€ then it wouldnâ€™t be a good recommendation,â€ Campbell said. â€œBut the committee feels strongly that the state take it back, but then weâ€™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. Weâ€™re going to have to improve it.â€
Campbell said she doesnâ€™t know how much those improvements, such as more caseworkers, will cost. But she referred to the problems documented in the committeeâ€™s roughly 425 page report.
â€œOnce you take a look at this report, I think you realize that we do have to make an investment here,â€ she said. â€œIâ€™m not sure that we know how much, but that investment is important to build a system that can be responsive to protecting children.â€
But Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island, the committee vice chairman, said costs have already risen substantially under privatization. â€œWe make a recommendation that may, at face value, look like itâ€™s going to be more costly,â€ Gloor said. â€œBut in reality we donâ€™t think so. I think Iâ€™m safe saying that on behalf of the committee. We donâ€™t think so. It may not cost less, at least in the short term. But certainly itâ€™s a better provision of service and cost I think if we follow these recommendations.â€
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.
â€œIt does take a lot of money to take care of our kids,â€ Newell said. â€œWe havenâ€™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.â€
Executive Director of the Foster Care Review Board Carol Stitt hailed the recommendations, including creating a new Childrenâ€™s Services Agency. Stitt suggested the Department of Health and Human Services has other concerns that make it hard to focus on children.
â€œI think one of the things that drives all agencies are budgets,â€ Stitt said. â€œAnd with the Medicaid focus, and the Medicare focus, as well as the many issues that have surfaced in Beatrice, itâ€™s very hard for any one administrator to make all these systems work.â€
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 hasnâ€™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 childrenâ€™s problems. Another recommendation is to establish a childrenâ€™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 shouldnâ€™t lose sight of the lives their decisions affect. â€œThese are children weâ€™re dealing with,â€ she said. â€œTheyâ€™re not case numbers. Theyâ€™re not commodities. Theyâ€™re actual children. And so every decision that is made is going to affect their lives one way or another.â€
Comments are closed.