New department of children’s services proposed

A bill that would create a new state agency responsible for all child welfare programs in Nebraska was considered by the Health and Human Services Committee Feb. 1.

LB821, sponsored by the committee, would create a 26-member commission charged with creating a statewide strategic plan to reform child welfare programs and services in Nebraska. The Nebraska Children’s Commission would comprise representatives of the three branches of state government and members of the general public including:

  • guardians ad litem;
  • prosecuting attorneys;
  • foster and biological parents;
  • children’s services providers;
  • child advocacy organizations;
  • foster care review board members;
  • court-appointed special advocate volunteers; and
  • youth currently or previously in foster care.

Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell, who introduced the bill on behalf of the committee, said children currently are being served by a fragmented system that is dysfunctional and difficult to navigate. The result, she said, is that many vulnerable children’s needs are not being met.

“We need a strategic plan,” Campbell said.

Under the bill, the commission would be required to collaborate with the Health and Human Services Committee and the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to prepare legislation for introduction in 2013 to create the state Department of Children’s Services (DCS).

The DCS would be responsible for all child welfare service programs in Nebraska including behavioral health, developmental disabilities, public health and Medicaid as those programs apply to children. The department also would assume responsibility for duties currently assigned to the Office of Juvenile Services and the DHHS division of children and family services.

In addition, the bill would require the department’s CEO to have broad experience with child welfare reform in complex systems and specialized skills in financial oversight and information management.

The department would begin providing services on July 1, 2013.

Campbell said the committee’s study of child welfare reform in Nebraska made clear that the state needs to provide integrated, solution-based interventions using evidence-based programs and practices.

“We continue to look for how all of these component pieces fit together to reach that objective,” she said.

Carolyn Rooker, executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska, testified in support of the bill, saying it would provide a strong base for reforming service provision to the state’s children. The commission would be a mechanism to monitor the state’s existing array of services and identify gaps, she said.

“It will require the collaboration and cooperation of all of those who have the power to change and impact the system,” Rooker said.

Jennifer Carter of Nebraska Appleseed also supported the proposal.

The bill would help solve existing problems of poor coordination, service gaps and cost shifting, Carter said, adding that it was especially important to include a broad range of stakeholders on the commission.

Adoptive parent Casie Lanning spoke in favor of the bill, saying she had been shuffled between divisions at DHHS and remains frustrated in her efforts to obtain services for her adoptive son.

“I think my story shows why there is a need for a separate agency to address the needs of children,” she said.

Kerry Winterer, DHHS chief executive officer, testified in opposition to LB821, particularly the bill’s mandate to create a separate department for children’s services.

Winterer said the commission should be allowed to study the issues and offer the best solution, rather than requiring them at the outset to implement a particular solution. He suggested that “less dramatic” alternatives be considered, including developing a coordinator position within DHHS to focus on children’s services within each existing division.

A new agency would result in fragmentation of services, Winterer said, noting that a child’s eligibility for many existing programs is determined by family income. In addition, he said, a clear line of demarcation does not exist between programs that serve children and those that serve other family members.

“Many of the issues that impact children involve the entire family and support system,” he said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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