Bills affecting children, veterans, debtors in legislative mix

Sens. Sara Howard, Kate Bolz and Patty Pansing Brooks at the Capitol (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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January 9, 2017 - 5:19pm

Bills to benefit Nebraska’s children and veterans were among those discussed as the Legislature met Monday.

Senators Kate Bolz and Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, and Sara Howard of Omaha, announced at a news conference they are introducing a package of proposals affecting Nebraska children.

Among them are Bolz’ bill aimed at preventing children, and the parent who is taking care of them, from being stuck in legal limbo over who has custody. Bolz said it would allow juvenile courts to issue a temporary "bridge order" establishing custody with a nonabusive parent, while other matters are resolved. "When one parent has been determined to be a safe, stable home, child welfare involvement can end by using a bridge custody order to transfer the case to the district court. All other matters like child support or divorce would be resolved separately," Bolz said.

A separate proposal by Bolz would extend an existing program. Currently, youth leaving the foster care system, which happens at age 19, are eligible for medical and case management services up to age 21. Bolz’ bill would offer those services to youth leaving the juvenile justice system up to age 21 as well, if they’re not going to be living at home.

Sen. Pansing Brooks said she wants to expand something she got started last year, requiring lawyers be appointed to represent young people in the juvenile justice system. Under the law passed last year, that requirement applies only in Douglas, Lancaster, and Sarpy counties. Pansing Brooks says all juveniles need that protection. "We don’t trust youth under 21 to drink; we don’t trust youth under 18 to vote; and we don’t trust youth under 16 to drive. We should not trust juveniles at any age to enter into the legal system without assistance of competent counsel," Pansing Brooks said.

Sen. Howard said she’s introducing a bill to devote $1 million dollars to hiring more child welfare caseworkers. She said it is one thing to say the state doesn’t have enough caseworkers to meet standards. But it is something else to look at the real-life consequences. "We’ve seen 22 deaths or serious injuries of system-involved children that could have been prevented with an adequate workforce of case workers. And high caseloads for child welfare is one of the primary obstacles to keeping maltreated children safe and delivering quality services," Howard said.

Howard was referring to the number of cases of deaths and serious injuries the inspector general for child welfare reports were investigated last fiscal year.

On another subject, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Sen. John Murante of Gretna will introduce a bill to merge the Division of Veterans Homes into the separate Department of Veterans Affairs. It is currently housed in the sprawling Health and Human Services Department. Department of Veterans Affairs Director John Hilgert said the merger has been talked about for more than 20 years, and should make it easier for the state’s 143,000 veterans. "Instead of having to shop around, to go to different entries into state government, you should be able to have a more seamless approach to whatever your needs are and what benefits you need, what you need to access," Hilgert said.

And Hilgert said the change will help the state budget, too, making it possible to switch some funding from the state to federal and cash funds, saving the state’s general fund about $1.4 million.

And another proposal introduced by Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln would provide for a hearing about whether people subject to fines or court costs can afford such costs. A recent ACLU study said inability to pay had led to the creation of "modern-day debtors’ prisons" in Nebraska. Under Hansen’s proposal, for people deemed unable to pay, courts could eliminate the fines and costs, or could order community service instead.

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