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Both sides of child welfare debate

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on Mon, 08/13/2012 - 06:09
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LINCOLN — Tears flowed and tales of trouble abounded at a hearing Thursday about whether to pull back on Nebraska's experiment in privatizing child welfare.

On one side were people such as Jenae Vanevery, a Lincoln foster parent who relayed her experience with KVC, one of the state's private contractors.

In September, she said, she got a call to pick up two new foster children.

The girls, ages 3 and 2, had been in KVC's care since being removed from their home 10 hours earlier.

But Vanevery found them still covered in their own waste, wearing clothing stiff from dried urine. One was wearing torn pants that exposed her bottom.

"Those girls had a right to better treatment," she said.

On the other side was Brandi Conner, a former state ward who now works for KVC in Lincoln.

She told about her experience with state case managers before privatization began.

During the 10 years she was in the foster care system, Conner said, she moved 10 times, lived in three foster homes and "had more workers than I could count."

She said the workers didn't visit her foster homes to see how she was doing there.

If they had, she might not have spent six years living in a foster home where there were dog feces around and where she was made responsible to care for four younger children.

Conner and Vanevery were among about 50 people — foster parents, birth parents, attorneys, advocates, child welfare workers and others — who testified about Legislative Bill 961.

The measure was introduced by the Health and Human Services Committee.

It represents the key recommendation from the committee's investigation into the state's child welfare privatization initiative. LB 961 would force the state to resume management of all child welfare cases.

The State Department of Health and Human Services turned over those responsibilities to private contractors last January in an attempt to help the contractors control their costs.

Officials agreed to the change after three of the five original contractors lost or dropped their contracts because of financial and management problems.

The remaining two are Kansas-based KVC and Omaha-based Nebraska Families Collaborative, which handle cases in the Omaha area and southeast Nebraska, including Lincoln.

State Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln said the bill is intended to provide Nebraska's child welfare system with a "sustainable, stable path forward."

She said the current situation leaves the state vulnerable to contractors pulling out on short notice.

But Scot Adams, interim children and family services director for HHS, said the bill itself would create instability.

He raised concerns that the contractors would end their contracts early or even immediately if the bill passes.

Adams urged lawmakers to take a long-term view of the privatization initiative, saying that other states' experiences show that improvements will happen but will take time.

"We can get better and we must get better," he said.

The Rev. Steven Boes, national executive director of Boys Town, also opposed the bill. Boys Town is a major partner in the Nebraska Families Collaborative.

Boes acknowledged there have been problems, but also "glimmers of hope."

Returning case management to the state would create several more years of chaos, Boes said.

Others argued that getting back to state case management is necessary to end the chaos and turmoil that have followed privatization.

"It wasn't perfect when the department ran it, but it was better than it is now," said Alicia Henderson, deputy Lancaster County attorney.

Some foster and birth parents said they now experience frequent worker turnover and workers who did not return their calls or provide answers.

Others told of similar problems when state workers handled cases.

Carolyn Rooker, executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska, took a neutral position on the bill.

She said public as well as privatized systems have succeeded in some states, and the keys to success lie in whether children and families get adequate services and support.

"Returning case management alone is not likely to solve any of the long-standing problems that have plagued our child welfare system," she said.

by Martha Stoddard
WORLD-HERALD BUREAU