A bill that would extend and revamp the state’s alternative response procedures in child welfare cases advanced from general file Feb. 21.
Alternative response is a practice that handles low-risk child welfare cases by empowering families to build on their strengths, rather than criminally investigating them or placing them on the Child Abuse and Neglect Registry. Nebraska’s alternative response pilot program has been in place since 2014.
Among other provisions, LB1061, introduced by Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue, would eliminate the pilot program’s sunset date, provide clearer definitions of response pathways for reports of child abuse and neglect and establish an advisory group under the Nebraska Children’s Commission to examine the state Department of Health and Human Service’s use of alternative response.
Crawford said it is the state’s duty to protect children and that alternative response can be used only in cases where danger to a child is low.
“Alternative response has been demonstrated to yield positive results and [DHHS] has expressed a desire to eliminate the sunset and continue this program indefinitely,” Crawford said.
Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha spoke in support of the bill. In the past, she said, if a social worker encountered a home that was unsanitary but was an otherwise loving environment for children, the social worker would have to involve the courts.
“Now, with alternative response, you can get services for that family, clean up that home, and keep that family intact without having them go into the court system,” she said. “Nebraska used to be the leader in removing children from their homes.”
Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln also spoke in support of the bill. She said LB1061 would reduce the number of out-of-home placements by requiring use of evidence-based tools in assessments and giving DHHS more flexibility in how to respond to abuse claims.
Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson suggested an amendment to expand the number of reasons that a case would not be eligible for alternative response.
“If we advance the bill without an amendment, we will be ignoring the alarm bells sounded by county attorneys about the need for additional safeguards for children at serious risk of harm,” Friesen said.
Crawford said she plans to meet with county attorneys to discuss their concerns before the next round of debate.
A Health and Human Services Committee amendment, adopted 40-0, would dissolve the Nebraska Children’s Commission sub-committee to review the prescribing and administration of psychotropic drugs to children who are wards of the state.
Howard said the goals of that committee have been accomplished and it is no longer required.
Lawmakers advanced LB1061 to select file on a 43-0 vote.