Some Nebraska lawmakers frustrated by state attempts to privatize foster care and other child welfare services could take more of a hand in that process this session.
Last November, the state Department of Health and Human Services began to transfer control of those child and family services to independent contractors. But since April, the state has lost three of its five contractors. Two of the companies said the state wasn't paying them enough. That has left the state with only two providers: KVC Behavioral HealthCare Nebraska and the Nebraska Families Collaborative.
Child advocacy groups and even county attorneys have slammed the changes, saying they have led to confusion and poor service. The department's plan to transfer day-to-day case management from state
workers to the private companies by Monday is too soon and risky, many have said.
Information from the Department of Health and Human Services on how the reform plans will progress and how much it will cost has been vague, said state Sen. Kathy Campbell, of Lincoln, who is likely to succeed outgoing state Sen. Tim Gay as head of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee.
"I think the Legislature has a role to play here as far as oversight," said Campbell. "The protection of children would dictate that we take the time."
Other lawmakers also have expressed concern that the department was not being sufficiently transparent with its plans and that it may be forcing change too quickly.
State Sen. Annette Dubas, of Fullerton, said she has received dozens of complaints about the changes from constituents, including foster families, state and private contractor caseworkers and family court officials.
"I don't feel like we're getting those accurate types of answers" from DHHS about how the changes will be executed and how much they will cost, Dubas said.
So far, the department has handled the changes autonomously, saying the reform falls under the agency's administrative authority.
But some lawmakers warn that DHHS should not assume the Legislature has no oversight in the matter.
"We do control the purse strings," said Dubas. "Some things you can grit your teeth over and drive through it, but we're talking about children in very precarious positions."
Campbell said lawmakers have an obligation to step in and legislate the reform if the safety of children is in question.
Officials with DHHS have acknowledged that the changes have not come without problems.
"Reform has not gone as we planned," said Kerry Winterer, chief executive officer of the Department of Health and Human Services. "But we are serious about doing it right, and we believe that we are on the right path."
Todd Reckling, who oversees child and family services for DHHS, has said that shifting case management from DHHS to the state's two remaining contractors will allows the department to concentrate on oversight and intake functions. DHHS officials believe that will
eliminate duplication of services and smooth out some of the confusion experienced in the past several months, Reckling said.
Kathy Bigsby Moore, executive director of Voices for Children, questioned the department's plans to complete the transition by Monday.
Moore said the plan lacks job descriptions for case managers and that DHHS hasn't sought input from organizations around the state that help families navigate Nebraska's child welfare system.
"Why the compulsion to move quickly?" she asked during a recent legislative hearing to discuss the changes. "I am still concerned that some of those pieces aren't in place."