As the Legislature moved ahead on new plans for how Nebraska should handle children from troubled families, recriminations continue over the state's efforts in recent years.
Near the beginning of Tuesday's debate, Sen. Kathy Campbell, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said that while senators could dwell on the past, their job is to plan for the future.
But there is still fallout from last week's announcement that the state is ending its contract with KVC. That's the next-to-last of five so-called "lead agencies" that were supposed to manage the privatization of child welfare services in the state, but have now been terminated or withdrawn for financial reasons.
Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton was particularly incensed about $6 million the Department of Health and Human Services has agreed to pay KVC to end its contract. "KVC is no longer going to be a lead agency. They're going to receive a golden parachute to turn these children and families back over to the state, or back over to NFC, or someone else. And in order to have access to the database and the information about these children we have to give KVC money? We have to pay them for the information that we need to try to help these children? I don't get it. I don't track, I don't follow it whatsoever," Dubas said.
Omaha Sen. John Nelson disputed Dubas' characterization. "I think the $6 million that they will receive is a settlement-type of arrangement because there has to be 90-days notice before you end a contract. It was important that the contract be changed and ended at this time," Nelson said. "We would have had further liability to KVC under the terms of the contract. So this is not a golden parachute anyway. It's a settlement, something that will be to the advantage of the state of Nebraska and cost us less," he said.
Dubas also said the state was threatening to cut the pay of KVC's subcontractors, but later said she'd been assured that payments would be kept level for 60 days.
The Legislature is also considering adding an inspector general position, which would be part of the ombudsman's office and would investigate the performance of the child welfare system. Meanwhile, the proposed Children's Commission would be charged with creating a strategic plan for child welfare services by December 15th. It would also recommend whether or not a new department should be created separate from Health and Human Services, something the committee originally recommended but has now deferred.
The commission would consist of two department officials and 16 members appointed by the governor, representing groups ranging from foster parents and children's service providers to prosecutors. Sen. Mark Christensen questioned whether that structure would produce good recommendations. "How can we have good legislation when we have people that will be appointed, we have people that have self-interest leading this?" he asked. "We've got to think about what we're doing. I think we've got to think about who's doing the appointments. I think it belongs in this body right here (the Legislature). I want to see a resolution to the garbage that's going on."
Campbell said she agreed with Christensen's concerns, but that other bills would address the need for oversight. And she stressed the need for a coherent plan. "We have lurched forward from idea to the next. It's time to take the advice of Nebraska citizens and step back and put into place a better framework for the future," she declared.
Lawmakers gave first-round approval to the bill for a Children's Commission and inspector general on a vote of 33-0. They also advanced spending more than half a million dollars to plan and design a data management system to track child welfare cases.
Sen. Lavon Heidemann, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said such a system could eventually cost $10 million to $30 million. Dubas pointed out that the state has spent around $250 million on child welfare in the last two years, and Campbell pointed out that one of the reasons for the $6 million to KVC was to get data from their computers.
Senators also advanced a bill requiring the Department to apply for a federal waiver to use funds for serving children in their homes rather than removing them, and to establish a uniform standard for foster care payments.
They also opened debate on what's expected to be the most controversial proposal, to say the state, not private agencies, should manage all child welfare cases in the future.