Increasing Transparency: Legislature gets tools to help shape child welfare reform

A resolution adopted last week in the Legislature would allow the Health and Human Services Committee to investigate and assess the effects of Nebraska's child welfare reform — a process that has produced many problems and questions since the state privatized its services in November 2009. Since then, three of the five lead agencies hired in the reform have dropped out or declared bankruptcy, leaving just two agencies to provide services for thousands of Nebraska's most vulnerable children and families. Critics say the process has been wrought with confusion: including unclear work responsibilities and lack of training for case workers; case workers who lack knowledge about the families they represent and, in some cases, the experience to deal with complex child abuse and neglect cases; and lack of documentation and records that leaves government agencies and advocacy groups unclear about how they can help. “Because of all the problems, because of the financial difficulties of lead agencies, this is going to give the legislature the tools to look at what happening to increase transparency, because I think there's been a lot of questions that haven't been answered,” says Sarah Forrest, policy and research associate for Voices for Children in Nebraska, a child advocacy group. Shelters in North platte and Kearney have closed since Visinet and Boys and Girls Home pulled out of their contracts. Forrest says kids are being shipped as far as Columbus to stay overnight. “It's really bad in western Nebraska,” Forrest says, where services have been largely depleted. But, regardless of problems, the reform process is moving forward. In January, the two remaining agencies took over case management responsibilities from the state. “We need to make sure that there's enough resources for the lead agencies to use and good enough oversight and monitoring on the part of HHS so we know kids are safe and that they're getting the best services possible,” Forrest says. Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell's resolution allows the legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, which she chairs, to consult with the state's Health and Human Services department, Foster Care Review Board, the courts, lead agencies and other stakeholders to use studies, reports and other information to improve the child welfare system. The committee could hold public hearings, subpoena and take depositions of witnesses to consider the reform's goals, measurable outcomes, coordination and long-term planning. And it could request a fiscal and performance audit. KVC Behavioral Healthcare Nebraska and the Nebraska Families Cooperative, the remaining lead agencies, supported the resolution. Sarah Helvey, staff attorney and director of Nebraska Appleseed's child welfare program, says the fiscal and performance audits are critical. “We think it's really important to understand what went wrong and what went right over the course of the last year,” she says. “It can inform our steps moving forward.” Forrest hopes the resolution will lead to legislative options that haven't been considered. “In a lot of other states that have privatized, the legislature has played big role, but they haven't at all in Nebraska,” she says. “[The resolution] provides a way for them to get into that action and for some leadership and transparency to take place.” The committee will produce a report to the Legislature by Dec. 15, but Forrest thinks the resolution's effects will be evident sooner. She expects the committee to begin holding hearings in March. And she thinks the resolution's impact will be seen on reform-related bills introduced this session, including four measures being heard in the committee Wednesday, Feb. 16. These bills include: forcing DHHS to create a methodology for payment of foster parents and require timely payment by contractors; requiring DHHS to create and publicize a statement of rights and responsibilities for foster parents; and requiring the Foster Care Review Board to bid out an independent program audit to investigate foster care placements and interview stakeholders with the goal of improving services. “[The resolution] can help inform how we can use those bills that have been put forward to best reform the system,” Forrest says. Another Campbell-introduced bill, set for a hearing in the committee March 16, would put some basic limits on privatization. LB 433 would ensure that the child abuse and neglect hotline is never privatized, and it would install rules requiring timely payments to subcontractors. Boys and Girls Home still owes more than $1.5 million to subcontractors after terminating its contract with the state last October. Forrest says Nebraskans should care about this issue because it affects the state's most vulnerable children and families. “We have a huge responsibility to them,” Forrest says. But it's also an issue that affects taxpayers. Right now, no one's quite clear about where the money is going. “If we don't have a system that's secure and stable, we're going to end up putting a lot of money into something that's not serving our families well, not providing efficient and good services,” she says. “Potentially, we're going to lose a lot of money if we don't establish something that really works.” The reform, although really bumpy, Forrest says, has potential to succeed if the state uses its resources correctly. “Because of the way our statutes are written, we will always have to pay for those kids,” she says. “It's a question of how you invest our money.”

posted at 09:24 pm
on Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

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