State lawmakers have advanced a number of bills designed to fix problems with Nebraska’s troubled child welfare system, during the first of two legislative days devoted to the issue.
The urgency of the issue was evident in the rhetoric on Tuesday.
“This house of cards called child welfare reform has fallen down around our heads and it’s the children and the foster parents who are buried beneath this rubble,” Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton stated during floor debate, expressing the frustration of many.
That frustration has turned into action as the Unicameral considers legislation growing out of a 400-page plus report delivered it by the Health and Human Services Committee as well as one piece of legislation suggested by the Performance Audit Committee.
Though some lawmakers questioned certain sections of bills, asked for clarification and called for minor changes in wording, the bills moved forward without dissent.
Sen. Kathy Campbell, as chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, guided most of the bills through the process. LB 821 as amended would create a Children’s Commission to guide improvements to the child welfare system. It would also take the first steps toward a new Department of Children’s Services and establish an Inspector General to work within the legislature’s Ombudsman’s office.
Throughout day-long debate on the topic, lawmakers decried how child welfare reform has failed to adequately address the needs of abused and neglected children who become wards of the state. They also had harsh criticism of how the Department of Health and Human Services developed contracts with private agencies, which allowed those agencies to seek ever increasing state funding, driving up costs to the state nearly 30%. All the agencies, except one, have left the program called Families Matter.
A couple of bill advanced by the legislature seek to rein in costs and improve accountability. LB 1160 would require the collection of data and demand reports to allow the legislature to better monitor progress. The Performance Audit Committee sponsors LB 949 which requires the Division of Children and Family Services to establish a strategic plan for reform. LB 820 would establish a foster care demonstration project as well as increase the payment to foster parents.
Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff, chairman of the Performance Audit Committee, cautioned colleagues that they are only putting the frame and foundation together to improve a system badly in need of repair.
“But we will not reach all of the problems and the decisions and we’ll be dealing with this for several years,” Harms predicted.
Legislators return to the child welfare issue this morning.
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [:45]