Political News

Advocates slam Nebraska's proposed child welfare budget cuts

Posted April 11

— Proposed budget cuts that would eliminate some state contracts with agencies that support foster families will undo years of progress and put Nebraska's most vulnerable children at risk, child welfare advocates said Tuesday.

Gov. Pete Ricketts' proposed budget would cut about $15 million over two years from child welfare programs, and eliminate one that provides post-adoption services to help families stay together. It also would shift responsibility for 500 of the approximately 2,000 Nebraska children placed with relatives and family friends from licensed private agencies to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The department proposed hiring 14 additional state caseworkers to handle the new cases. Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage said the governor's budget proposal will give DHHS the resources and staff it needs to provide services formerly provided by contractors.

Nebraska's independent child welfare watchdog has found in each of the four years since the office was created that DHHS employees' caseloads already exceed federal and state requirements.

DHHS provided no plan for how it would handle additional cases, Nebraska Appleseed Child Welfare Director Sarah Helvey said. She said caseworkers will be forced to take on greater responsibility despite already being overworked, leading to more errors that could kill children.

Sara Bair, a Lincoln mother who took in three children whose birth mother she knew well, said foster families need support that DHHS can't provide. She said Cedars, a private Lincoln agency, helped her make a home for the children.

"I don't want other families who can provide loving homes to feel lost," she said. "When parents are overwhelmed, it's the kids who suffer."

Cedars President and CEO Jim Blue said proposed changes to foster care are part of a "sudden, broad-based attack on human services across the state."

Blue said he supports state caseworkers who do remarkable jobs, but they're overworked. Kinship placements help children by placing them with people they already know and minimizing disruption, but these new caregivers often need more help than licensed foster parents because they weren't prepared to have children appear on their doorsteps, he said.

About a third of foster children have been in at least four homes and often have to change schools along with moving to new homes, said Kim Hawekotte, executive director of the Nebraska Foster Care Review Office.

"If children can't safety live in their parental home, they need to live in the least restrictive, most homelike temporary placement possible," Hawekotte said.

About 45 percent of foster children live in Douglas or Sarpy counties, but the 14 counties with the most out-of-home children per 1,000 youth are rural. Parents living outside Omaha have a harder time accessing substance abuse treatment or seeing children who may be placed in far-away foster homes, Hawekotte said.

The budget cuts also would eliminate Right Turn, a program created to help adopted children stay with their new families. The law, meant to allow panicked young parents to safely drop off infants instead of abandoning or killing them, applied to all children younger than 18 and resulted in parents and guardians relinquishing custody of older children.

Right Turn has served about 1,000 families since 2010 and kept nearly all of them together, said former state Sen. Amanda McGill Johnson, who worked to develop the program during her time in the Legislature. The program is maintained in the budget the Appropriations Committee hopes to send to the full Legislature soon, but McGill Johnson said it will need support to keep protecting adopted children.

"They're more than line items in the budget," McGill Johnson said. "Their lives are in the hand of our lawmakers."

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Follow Julia Shumway on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JMShumway

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