November 27, 2014

Gov. Heineman hopes for positive change to child welfare system (AUDIO)

Gov. Dave Heineman

Governor Heineman hesitated; then accepted proposed changes to the child welfare system during the legislative session.

Heineman withheld support of proposed child welfare legislation at first, later signing a package of bills after his administration worked with lawmakers on the legislation. He says the focus now must be on making the system better.

“And, at the end of the day, this is all about the kids,” according to Heineman. “How do we make sure we’re taking care of the kids and their families?”

The Unicameral approved five bills in an effort to fix problems in Nebraska’s troubled child welfare system. Some make changes now. Others set up structures to advise future action.

Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, told colleagues during floor debate during the legislative session that a Children’s Commission, created under LB 821, would help the state devise a strategic plan for the services it offers children who enter the system.

“We need a strategic plan,” according to Campbell. “We went into this effort without one. We still don’t have one. We have somewhat of an operational plan, but we don’t have a strategic plan. We need to know where we’re going and what those major goals and benchmarks are. That has been the central crux of, I think, the problem.”

LB 821 also creates the Office of Inspector General within the legislature’s Ombudsman’s office. The Inspector General would have broad powers to investigate employees within the Department of Health and Human Services, private agencies in the system as well as foster parents.

The legislature approved LB 1160, requiring data collection by HHS; LB 949 requires HHS draft a strategic plan for moving forward; and LB 820 establishes a foster care demonstration project and increases foster care reimbursements.

LB 961 also allows Nebraska Families Collaborative to operate as a pilot project for a private agency to act as the lead agency in Omaha. NFC is the only private agency left in the system.

The governor expressed concern about costs throughout discussion of the bills. The Health and Human Services Committee estimates that increasing the stipend to foster parents would cost $3.2 million. It is estimated that immediately requiring the state to bring child care caseload managements up to national standards would cost $20 million. That cost will be phased in over a four-year period.

Nebraska had approximately 2,800 children in the system in January.

That is a concern of Heineman’s He says the state still needs to answer the question of why more children enter the state system in Nebraska than in most other states.

“That’s another issue that needs to be addressed,” Heineman says. “A number of things, I hope, will lead to positive results.”

AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [:40]