State lawmakers have given tentative approval to a number of bills aimed at fixing a broken child welfare system. All five bills advanced without a dissenting vote.
Legislators earlier had advanced four separate measures. On Wednesday, they gave preliminary approval to LB 961, which would return management of child welfare cases to the state, a core responsibility of the state, according to the Health and Human Services Committee.
Nebraska launched into child welfare reform in 2009, diving into privatization as an answer to problems that had arisen with children entering the state system. The state sought contracts with six agencies. One dropped out immediately. Five remained. All but two eventually quit. Recently, the largest private contractor, KVC, ended its work as a lead agency, leaving only Nebraska Families Collaborative serving as a lead agency in Omaha.
Though the Health and Human Services Committee insisted that case management must return to the state and included it as its top priority in recommendations emerging from its 400-page report, Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, during legislative floor debate, openly questioned whether which agency handles case management will make much difference.
“Colleagues, this is not about who does case management,” Coash said. “Because, at the end of the day, it is still a person who has to take responsibility for the management of a child and his family as they navigate through a very difficult system.”
Still, several lawmakers criticized efforts to privatize the system. Horror stories were told about how private agencies treated children who entered the system and foster parents who give those children temporary shelter.
Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins told colleagues that one of the first constituent cases he handled as a senator involved a foster parent who had not been reimbursed for expenses for three months. Bloomfield said the private agency in charge wasn’t meeting its obligations. That agency dropped out of the system. The state stepped in. The foster parent was paid.
“To see lead agencies return to our part of the state is not something we’re excited to see until we know that what they’re doing will work,” Bloomfield stated. “We’re not willing to see our kids be used as guinea pigs any longer.”
Lawmakers advanced LB 961 with some promises that the Health and Human Services Committee will make some suggested changes to the bill before it returns for a second round of debate. Also, Nebraska Families Collaborative will serve as a pilot project in Omaha to determine if a lead agency model can work in Nebraska.
Some have suggested legislators have over-stepped their authority and are interfering with roles reserved for the executive branch, an accusation that brought a strong response from Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha.
“We are not micro-managing the executive branch. As I said yesterday, we are setting a bar, a bar that includes financial and management oversight for those agencies and that department.” Krist stated during debate.
On Tuesday, the Unicameral advanced LB 821, which would create a Children’s Commission and an Inspector General, LB 1160, which would require certain data collection, LB 949, which requires the Department of Health and Human Services to draft a strategic plan for moving forward, and LB 820, which would establish a foster care demonstration project and increase foster care reimbursements.
Some lawmakers have expressed reservations about cost. Nebraska had approximately 2,800 children in the system in January. 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. The committee recommends gradually bringing caseloads into compliance over the next four years at about $5 million a year.
Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, praised colleagues during her close on LB 961, the fifth of the child welfare bills, and issued a precaution.
“You’ve all done a great job and I think we have set into motion a great first step, but that’s what this is on these five bills is a great first step and the journey will be long,” Campbell stated.
AUDIO: Sen. Kathy Campbell closes on child welfare legislation [4 min.]