Sen. Bob Krist, Gov. Pete Ricketts spar over HHS problems, including spending and sex abuse

August 10, 2018

Gubernatorial candidate Bob Krist thinks that he could handle the problems at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services better than Gov. Pete Ricketts, Krist said this week after a report on an audit that questioned $26 million in spending was released.

Krist, a Democrat, argues that Republican Ricketts “buried his head in the sand” on problems at HHS, such as those alleged in the audit and reports of sex abuse and death of children in the state’s care.

But Ricketts’ campaign argues that he has made it a priority to turn the department around and says many of the problems were inherited from fellow Republican Gov. Dave Heineman.

HHS has a $3.6 billion annual budget and a host of responsibilities that involve caring for children and sick people.

Krist also criticized the Ricketts administration for opposing the creation of a special legislative oversight committee to review deaths and sexual abuse of children in the state’s care. The administration argued that sufficient oversight already exists.

“This is just the latest in a long line of problems within our child welfare system under Gov. Ricketts’ watch and instances where Gov. Ricketts and his administration have simply buried their heads in the sand, done nothing to fix the problems, opposed policy and oversight that would help find solutions and/or simply made excuses for why these abhorrent failures are either acceptable, palatable or justifiable,” Krist said at a Thursday press conference.

Ricketts’ campaign said the governor has made child welfare a priority.

“Inheriting a troubled system, the Ricketts administration has used innovation and enhanced accountability to improve care for Nebraska’s vulnerable youth,” campaign spokesman Matthew Trail said. “These efforts have contributed to a nearly 10 percent decrease in the number of children placed outside their home in the last year. Under Gov. Ricketts’ leadership, great strides are being made each day.”

In response, the department noted that no children who were involved in the state child welfare system have died this year, down from five in 2016 and one in 2017. The department has also disputed the findings of the audit.

“The Division of Children and Family Services serves families in the safest environment possible,” department spokesman Matt Litt said. “The CFS team is concerned about and actively works to prevent any harm to children involved with the division. One death is too many, and our CFS team will continue our work to minimize harm to children.”

Krist proposed several changes at the department, including a renewed focus on smaller caseloads for social workers and a change in assessments that would allow the department to substantiate more abuse claims.

His proposed overhaul of HHS also includes appointing his running mate, Lynne Walz, as his administration’s point person on such issues.

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