HHS Committee: Change child welfare reform

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December 15, 2011 - 6:00pm

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, a legislative committee has recommended.

For links to the report (under the label "LR37") click here.

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," she 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."

Fred Knapp, NET News

Dave Newell of NFC and Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez of KVC, private contractors, talk to reporters in the Capitol.

Dave Newell, head of Nebraska Families Collaborative, one of the two private agencies that began managing cases this January, agreed there's a problem, but said it pre-dates privatization.

"Actually, this would be a step backwards," he said of the recommendation that the state resume control of managing cases.

"We agree that the system in Nebraska is broken," he said, but "it's been broken for over 20 years."

Among the problems are 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, says she knows those problems very well. Peters was in foster care in western Nebraska from age 13 to 18. She says 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.

Amy Peters

"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," she said. "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."

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. But in reality, we don't think so," Gloor said. "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 of private contractor NFC said one advantage of using private agencies is that the costs have become more visible.

"It does take a lot of money to take care of our kids. We haven't been spending enough money on those kids," he said. "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," he continued. "And we (private agencies) are an important part of that process."

Carol Stitt, executive director of the Foster Care Review Board, hailed the recommendations, including creating a new Children's Services Agency. Stitt suggested that 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. 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," she said.

Campbell said creating a new department would help break down the bureaucratic "silos" that prevent getting needed services to kids. Breaking down such silos was the rationale for combining separate agencies into Health and Human Services in the 1990s - but Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said that clearly hasn't worked, when people are faced with the choice of becoming a state ward or not getting services. And while Campbell said the system is broken, she added 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 formulate a strategic plan.

Judging from the hearings, former foster child Peters said it sounded like the Health and Human Services Committee was grappling with the right questions. As the process moves forward, she advised lawmakers not to 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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