Foster care bill amended to provide rate increase

The state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) would be required to apply for a federal waiver for a foster care demonstration project under a bill given first-round approval Feb. 28. The bill was amended to provide rate increases for foster parents starting July 1.

Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell said LB820, introduced by the Health and Human Services Committee, could improve permanency for children in the foster care system and allow the department to fund an array of community-based services for children and their families.

Title IV-E is the adoption assistance and foster care program funded by the federal government. Campbell said a waiver would provide flexibility in the use of Title IV-E funds to reduce the number of children in out-of-home care in Nebraska.

“Our goal has always been to get more children served in their home,” she said.

Under the bill, the waiver application would be required to show that Nebraska would implement at least two child welfare improvement policies outlined by the federal government within three years of the application. At least one of those policies would be new to the state.

As introduced, the bill would require DHHS to apply for a federal Title IV-E waiver by Jan. 1, 2013. A Health and Human Services Committee amendment, adopted 33-0, changed the date to Sept. 30, 2013.

The amendment also would establish a committee of child welfare stakeholders to provide recommendations to DHHS regarding the application. The committee would provide periodic reports to the Health and Human Services Committee and a final written report to the department, the Legislature and the governor by Dec. 15, 2012.

Campbell said the department already is working on a waiver but needs more time and would benefit from the input of individuals with expertise in providing the types of services the waiver would fund.

The amendment also would require DHHS to create a Foster Care Reimbursement Committee to develop a statewide standard rate structure for children in foster care. The committee would include the department CEO and various stakeholders in the system, including foster parents, advocates and agency representatives.

In formulating the rate structure, the committee would be required to analyze consumer data on the cost of caring for children in the state and to:
• identify and account for additional costs specific to foster children;
• apply a geographic cost of living adjustment for Nebraska; and
• maximize the use of federal funds through Title IV-E and TANF funding.

Campbell said the state must provide foster parents with adequate compensation for their important role in ensuring the safety and well-being of Nebraska’s vulnerable children.

Because of the time required for the reimbursement committee to do its work, Campbell said, the amendment also would provide a $3.10 per day, per child rate increase directly to foster parents beginning July 1, 2012.

Campbell said the initial rate increase would cost the state approximately $3 million. “It is probably one of the most important investments of $3 million we could make,” she said.

Fullerton Sen. Annette Dubas agreed, saying Nebraska foster parents are dedicated to the welfare of the state’s children, yet receive some of the lowest compensation in the country.

“I have been very frustrated with the way foster parents have been treated over the years,” she said.

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop also supported the amendment, saying there is a correlation between compensation and quality of care. Nebraska often cuts pay to those who care for the state’s vulnerable populations in order to save money, he said, without looking at the long-term consequences.

“And then we get to a crisis and look back and say, ‘How did we get here?’” Lathrop said. “We have to compensate fairly for what these people do.”

Finally, the amendment would include provisions from LB874, introduced by Omaha Sen. Gwen Howard, which would require licensure of all foster parents not related to a child by blood, marriage or adoption.

Howard said relative placements – also known as kinship care – need to be more tightly regulated because such homes do not have to be licensed and are reimbursed at a lower rate than other foster care placements. The intent, she said, is to encourage placement in homes with extended family members because such arrangements are less traumatizing for foster children.

Lead agencies, however, are defining kinship care as placement with “someone known to the child,” a definition that could encompass a relationship as insignificant as being the janitor at a foster child’s school, Howard said.

“By cutting corners to pay foster parents less, you aren’t doing justice to the child,” she said.

Senators advanced LB820 to select file on a 32-0 vote.

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