Proposed fixes to the troubled state child welfare system have moved into position for a final vote in the legislature.
The Unicameral has given tentative approval to five bills. All now are being prepared for final consideration by the legislature.
Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, told colleagues during floor debate 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. Campbell says she hopes the Inspector General could discern trends and patterns within the system and head off problems.
The legislature has also given tentative approval to LB 1160, which would require certain data to be collected by HHS; 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.
Most of the discussion during floor debate occurred during consideration of LB 821 and LB 961, which would return case management to the state. 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.
Cost has been a concern during debate. 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. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha told colleagues that with passage of the bills, the legislature no longer will look to place the blame for problems in the system with others.
“But understand now, this is becoming our baby if you will,” Lautenbaugh stated during floor debate. “We’re calling the tune. We’re setting the policy. We’re setting the standards. It’s on us now.”
Campbell closed after debate on the bill by telling colleagues the system must provide for the safety and well-being of the children who enter it; and that the state must seek permanency for the children who enter the system.
“But, in the end, that has to be our most important goal, because every child deserves to have a sense of permanency in their life.”
AUDIO: Health and Human Services Committee chairwoman Kathy Campbell closes on final child welfare bill [1:20]