Child welfare strategic plan and oversight bill amended, advanced

A bill intended to provide a strategic plan and legislative oversight for child welfare programs in Nebraska was amended and advanced from select file March 7.

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.

As amended on general file, the bill would create a 22-member Nebraska Children’s Commission tasked with creating a statewide strategic plan to reform child welfare programs and services in the state. The commission would include 16 appointed members representing stakeholders in the child welfare system and six non-voting members representing the Legislature and the state court system.

Among other issue areas, the commission would be required to create 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.

LB821 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 Legislature. 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.

Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell, chairperson of the Health and Human Service Committee, introduced an amendment during select file debate that made several changes to LB821.

The amendment, adopted 46-0, would:
• shorten and clarify legislative intent language;
• clarify that the children’s commission be housed within the CEO’s office of DHHS;
• terminate the children’s commission on June 30, 2014, unless continued by the Legislature; and
• authorize the commission to appoint individuals with special expertise to its various sub-committees.

Campbell said the amendment addressed concerns expressed by several senators during general file debate.

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop offered an amendment to Campbell’s amendment, adopted 35-0, that would authorize the commission to create a committee to examine the structure and responsibilities of the Office of Juvenile Services.

The committee would be charged with reviewing the role and effectiveness of the state’s youth rehabilitation and treatment centers (YRTC) as well as the responsibilities of the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Services.

Lathrop said the state’s YRTC have gone through significant changes recently, including a slight increase in population and new treatment approaches. He said an examination of how YRTC fit into the spectrum of services provided for troubled youth in Nebraska would help lawmakers make better policy decisions.

A second Lathrop amendment would require law enforcement agencies and prosecuting attorneys to cooperate with investigations conducted by the inspector general, regardless of any criminal investigation or prosecution in progress.

Lathrop said the inspector general would need access to police reports and other information in order to do his or her job effectively.

“My amendment simply says that the executive branch, in the form of the state patrol, cannot keep the inspector general from conducting an investigation,” he said.

Following adoption of the amendment on a 31-0 vote, lawmakers advanced LB821 from select file by voice vote.

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