Nebraska lawmakers have taken their first votes on making major changes to the state's child welfare system. Five bills got first-round approval this week, dealing with everything from creating a new Children's Commission to come up with a strategic plan for services, to planning and designing a new data management system to keep track of kids in the system.
But the changes continue to evolve, and still to be resolved is how much the changes will cost. With the withdrawal of the next-to-last private contractor, KVC, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it would reallocate $20 million this year, and seek another $20 million next year, to continue services.
Fred Knapp of NET News talks to Grant Gerlock for an update on new changes to child welfare in Nebraska.
|Child Welfare Bills in the Unicameral
GRANT GERLOCK: Fred, privatization of child welfare ran into all kinds of problems. Costs were escalating. Private groups that got contracts to run the system, the so-called "lead agencies" were dropping out. So state senators decided to step in. Are we starting to get a better idea of what the child welfare system will look like in the future?
FRED KNAPP: Yes we are. Five bills were advanced this past week. Let me just describe them briefly. There's one that creates a new Children's Commission which is supposed to come up with a strategic plan for how the whole system is supposed to operate in the future. They also want to get a better handle on the numbers about the kids and where they stand in the system by planning for a new data management system. They're going to hire an outside evaluator to look at the system. They going to require the Department of Health and Human Services to have a separate budget program and strategic plan for its child welfare division. And they're going to apply for a waiver so they can use federal funds more flexibly in a demonstration project and give more money to foster families. And the final bill was a state re-takeover of case management in child welfare cases.
GERLOCK: There was been so much controversy on this issue. Has that been reflected in the debate among state lawmakers?
KNAPP: Actually all of the bills have been advanced so far without any negative votes. That reflects not a lack of disagreement, but the fact that a lot of things have been worked out beforehand. A lot of prep work. A lot of willingness to compromise. The biggest example of that is in the last bill that I mentioned. The state was going to, under one of these bills, take back management of child welfare cases statewide from the remaining private contractors. Now they've carved out an exception, at least for now, for Douglas and Sarpy counties which is a huge proportion of the cases in the state. And this is how Senator Kathy Campbell described the change.
"KVC left, Campbell said. (DHHS) has had to take over in 8 days, the transition here for the southeast service area. And I think the realization that one has to be practical. The realization that the department, that's an awful lot to ask of them to then turn around and take over case management of the most populous area of the state."
GERLOCK: And as we mentioned, costs have escalated tremendously throughout this process. What are the financial implications of the new proposals going forward?
KNAPP: Well, the Department of Health and Human Services says that it will shift $20 million to handle the transition costs of losing KVC this year. It's asked for another $20 million for next year. I asked the governor if he's concerned about those costs.
"That's the reflection of where we're at, at this particular point, in the reform system," Heineman said. "I want to make sure the emphasis and the priority is on kidsd. Now, the other issue we need to look at is why are we putting children into our welfare system at twice the national average? We need to make sure we get that under control."
KNAPP: And ironically that issue about the number of kids coming into the system is one which the administration's reform plan implemented three years ago was supposed to address. Now we're at the stage of reforming the reform. The new bills will also have some costs. The increased payments to foster families of $3.10/day will add about $3 million a year. And then that data management system, the new computer system, which starts off at only half-a-million dollars of planning and design money could eventually cost $10-$30 million just for that.
GERLOCK: So no changes without some cost. What's the next step?
KNAPP: The Health and Human Services Committee wants the Health and Human Services Department to come in and give them the same budget briefing that they gave to the Appropriations Committee this week. That's going to happen probably on Tuesday, describing these transition costs and how they're going to shuffle money around within the department. And also how they're going to decrease the ratio of cases to case workers. The Child Welfare League of America says you should have 16 kids for every caseworker. The administration has said, okay, we're going to do that right away. Well, now the committee is saying maybe that should be phased in, which was their original plan. So they're going to get a briefing on that and then debate on the bills themselves, second round debate, is expected to resume on Wednesday.
GERLOCK: Fred Knapp of NET News has been covering child welfare and lots of other issues from the Capitol through the legislative session. Fred thanks for the update.
KNAPP: Pleased to do it.