Capitol Focus: Lawmakers focus on child welfare

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State lawmakers say Nebraska hasn't kept track of important case information about children who are in state custody due to abuse, neglect, and other personal problems

Legislators blame the problem on an outmoded computer system as well as high turnover and overwhelming caseloads. The senators said the incomplete information has complicated their efforts to overhaul the state's child welfare system in the wake of a report that found substantial problems with a privatization effort that began in 2009.

Some argue the lack of documentation is part of a broader problem that includes inadequate oversight of foster care services, inflated costs and the loss of placement options for children.

“That issue has been somewhat lost in the discussion here, but it's critical,” said Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell. “If policymakers are going to make good decisions, and keep track of kids and families, you need a really good data system. I think that is one area where we really need to push for upgrades and work with all branches to say what the most important data is, and do we have a system that can get it to us. I don't think we do.”

A state Foster Care Review Board report released in December 2010 found that important information was missing from the files of many state wards. Case plans for children, details about their family placements, and documentation of court-ordered family and sibling visits were not included in the files.

The report blamed the problem on high staff turnover within the private lead agencies that serve Nebraska, a lack of experience among their case workers, unmanageable workloads and a constant shifting of case responsibilities. Todd Reckling, head of Nebraska's Child and Family Services at the time, responded that the state was working with lead agencies and had made progress, but lawmakers said problems have persisted.

“If you're not getting that information in a timely manner, it delays permanency for the children,” said Campbell, chairwoman of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee. “Really, that's the most important goal. We don't want them to languish in the system.”

A Department of Health and Human Services spokesman said agency officials believe the computer tracking system is adequate. But he acknowledged that rising caseloads for child welfare and other services have placed more demand on it.

Phone messages left Friday with the two remaining lead agencies, KVC Health Services and Boys Town, were not returned.

On Thursday, the Health and Human Services Committee will hold a public hearing on a bill that would return many case management duties to state employees. The two lead agencies have opposed the bill, calling it a step backward, and Gov. Dave Heineman has hinted his opposition.

The privatization move began when the state signed contracts with five lead agencies to offer and coordinate child services statewide. Three providers in northern, western and central Nebraska have since dropped out, citing financial problems, which forced the state and the remaining lead agencies to take over their cases.

Heineman has said the move toward privatizing services to children who suffer from abuse or neglect, as well as behavioral and mental health problems, hasn't gone as well as he hoped. But the governor has repeatedly opposed a return to the old system that relied more on state employees.

Although the new program was intended to make the child welfare system more effective and less expensive, there have been persistent complaints about unmanageable workloads, high turnover among case workers, poor training and communication, a lack of oversight, inflated costs.

In response to the problems, the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee in December 2011 suggested creating a new agency, the Department of Children's Services, to coordinate programs for Nebraska children in state care. A report by the committee also called for a 25-member commission of local and state officials, lawmakers and child welfare stakeholders that would develop a plan to address other problems.

In his State of the State speech to lawmakers this month, Heineman said he plans to shift some child-management duties to other agencies so the Department of Health and Human Services can focus more on abused and neglected children.

Omaha Sen. Gwen Howard, a former social worker, said the privatization effort has resulted in more appointed guardians and service providers losing track of children in the system. She blamed the high turnover within the two lead agencies, and the shuffling of children among case workers and foster families.

“It's always been a problem, but it's never been the problem it is now,” said Howard.

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