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Local View: Nebraska’s child welfare system takes step back

August 30, 2018

It is disheartening to read of the concerns in our state’s child welfare system highlighted by the state auditor and, also repeatedly, by the inspector general of child welfare.

Under the leadership of Gov. Pete Ricketts these past four years, our child welfare system once again is facing alarming problems.

The Office of Inspector General of Child Welfare noted last year that “Workforce issues remain a major problem for Nebraska’s child welfare system.” And, in the past month, a state auditor’s report called into question an estimated $26 million in child welfare spending.

This is especially discouraging given the progress achieved by Nebraska state senators and child advocates following the child welfare crisis in 2011.

In that year, the child welfare system was in turmoil because of a failed privatization effort by the State of Nebraska. The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee was tasked through LR37 to review the privatization initiative and make recommendations.

The HHS Committee and our legal counsel partnered with other legislative committees and agencies both in and out of state government to analyze the initiative, conduct public hearings throughout the state and publish our findings in a 400-page report.

Eighteen recommendations from the report and five legislative bills were discussed in the 2012 session and passed on three rounds of debate without one negative vote. The Legislature’s commitment to the care and protection of children and youth was clear and focused.

The child welfare legislation created the inspector general’s position and established the Nebraska Children’s Commission. Fiscal and programmatic oversight was strengthened.

Over the next two years, senators collaborated on numerous bills addressing children’s issues, including revision of the Foster Care Review Board, review and overhaul of the payment system to foster parents and a pilot program addressing kinship placements and innovative options to assist families. The Legislature worked with child advocates and Nebraska DHHS to advance new programs and restore the child welfare system.

This was a collaborative process, one where we rolled up our sleeves and got to work. The progress was encouraging and promising. The paramount goal in this oversight initiative was to ensure children were safe and received quality care.

But, here we are in 2018, and the governor has allowed the momentum to lapse, ignoring the vision set forth by the Legislature, ignoring the policies we put in place. The child welfare system slips back into disarray.

Of particular concern is the failure to meet caseload standards. The inspector general’s 2017 annual report addresses why caseload standards --noting the state has yet to meet them once since they were adopted in 2012 -- are so critical to ensure child protection:

“Through investigations and reviews, the OIG has repeatedly uncovered evidence that high caseload and workload burdens, staff turnover, and vacancy issues for CFS (Children and Family Services) staff have negatively impacted child welfare operations in Nebraska. ... Caseload standards were adopted to improve the effectiveness of the child welfare workforce and help stabilize the child welfare system.”

The state auditor’s report certainly questions whether dollars are prudently spent. It is frustrating to read examples of overpayment, errors and poor fiscal management, knowing the critical need for additional well-trained and supported case workers and prevention programs.

Frequently during legislative debates, I would hear the phrase, “Children are our future.” So true. But children need safety, care and permanency in their lives. Their needs are now. Their protection should not be compromised to save dollars or in a failure of fiscal management.

Nebraska native and pioneer in child advocacy, Grace Abbott once wrote, “Justice for all children is the high ideal in a democracy.” I would add that this also should be a primary priority of the Nebraska Legislature -- and the governor.

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