Child welfare strategic plan and oversight measure advanced

A bill introduced to create a new state agency responsible for all child welfare programs in Nebraska was amended and advanced by the Legislature Feb. 28.

LB821, sponsored by the Health and Human Services Committee, originally called for creation of a commission charged with preparing legislation for introduction in 2013 to create a state Department of Children’s Services.

A committee amendment, adopted 36-0, replaced the bill with provisions that would change the membership and duties of the commission and create an inspector general position to provide legislative oversight to the state’s child welfare system.

As amended, LB821 would create the 22-member Nebraska Children’s Commission charged with creating a statewide strategic plan to reform child welfare programs and services in the state. Sixteen members would be appointed by the governor and would include a:
• guardian ad litem;
• prosecuting attorney;
• foster parent;
• biological parent;
• children’s services provider;
• foster care review board member;
• child advocacy organization representative;
• court-appointed special advocate volunteer;
• behavioral health authority regional administrator; and
• youth currently or previously in foster care.

Non-voting ex officio members would include the chairpersons of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services, Appropriations and Judiciary committees and three members appointed by the State Court Administrator.

Among other issue areas, the commission would be charged with creating committees to examine foster care reimbursement rates and state policy regarding prescription of psychotropic drugs to state wards. The commission would be required to report on the strategic plan to the Legislature and the governor by Dec. 15, 2012.

Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell, chairperson of the Health and Human Services Committee, said the bill’s original requirement to establish a separate department of Children’s Services was removed so that the commission could study a variety of options and find the best path forward.

“We found that there had been no strategic plan at the beginning of this process,” Campbell said. “It is time for the Legislature to fulfill its responsibility and establish a framework for a strategic plan.”

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop supported the proposal, saying a strategic plan would help stop the cycle of restructuring the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) with each new administration.

“Historically, it seems to be something that happens in this state every five to 10 years,” he said. “Today, we are here with what can only be described as a mess on our hands.”

Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln agreed with the need to address the child welfare reform effort, but expressed concern about expanding government to do so.

“Under this bill we’re going to create a new unit of government, give it powers, and hopefully it acts to at least set us on the right course,” he said. “But what will this body look like 10 years from now? I don’t see that there is a sunset in this bill.”
Holdrege Sen. Tom Carlson said lawmakers should reconsider allowing a children’s services provider to be among the voting members of the commission. An individual with a direct interest in how child welfare dollars are spent should not be a voting member, he said.

The amended bill also would create the Office of Inspector General within the Office of Public Counsel, also known as the Ombudsman’s Office.

The inspector general would be appointed by the Public Council and approved by the Executive and Health and Human Services committees. The office would be authorized to investigate allegations of possible misconduct, death or serious injury in foster homes, private agencies, child-care facilities and programs.

The office also would analyze data and report to the Legislature and the governor annually.

Campbell said the new position would be especially important in the era of legislative term limits.

“In the years ahead, we will all leave and someone else will sit in our seats,” she said. “This position [of inspector general] is a good investment to make sure that someone is watching the system and advising the Legislature.”

Senators voted 33-0 to advance LB821 to select file.

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