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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

Posted August 28

Omaha World-Herald. August 25, 2017

Nebraska child welfare system makes progress but still faces challenges

Nearly a decade ago, Nebraska abruptly launched a controversial effort to privatize child welfare services — the care and support for vulnerable children facing crisis situations at home.

These home emergencies arise from mental health issues, substance abuse concerns, financial problems or abuse and neglect.

Nebraska's attempt at child welfare privatization wasn't adequately planned or funded, however, and it triggered major disruption and instability. A series of private providers dropped out.

There was one exception: Nebraska Families Collaborative, formed by Boys Town and other Omaha-area providers. The nonprofit organization continues to handle the cases in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, while the State Department of Health and Human Services handles cases in the rest of Nebraska.

Matt Wallen, the new Children and Family Services director for HHS, was right this week when he said it's in the public interest for the state and Nebraska Families Collaborative to work constructively with each other to ensure children receive needed care.

Differences in perspective will arise at times between HHS and the collaborative, but it's imperative that the two organizations keep any disagreements from undercutting the quality of care.

The collaborative handles about 5,000 child welfare cases a year — just under half of the state total.

Nebraska's child welfare system has made progress in several ways since its privatization effort all but collapsed. NFC, for example, has made improvements in regard to child safety, social worker caseloads, permanent placement and placement with relatives.

The Legislature and Gov. Pete Ricketts took an important step this year by approving funding for a sixth juvenile court judge for Douglas County. That step should go far in reducing delays that currently leave too many foster children in limbo for extended periods.

Considerable challenges remain for Nebraska's child welfare system, both statewide and in the Douglas-Sarpy area. Federal standards for such services are being tightened. Turnover among front-line personnel is still too high.

Above all, as the Nebraska Families Collaborative acknowledges, children are removed from the home in Douglas and Sarpy Counties at far too high a rate, especially in regard to children of color.

Additional uncertainties remain. State funding falls well short of meeting Nebraskans' behavioral health needs, burdening the child welfare system with the consequences. The federal government may make major changes to the Medicaid program, creating possible complications.

The collaborative's current contract will expire in mid-2019, and contract negotiations with the state always prove complicated and challenging in hashing out payment rates and other specifics.

Nebraska's child welfare situation, then, is a mixed one — plenty of positives, but also many challenges. A key to further progress is a positive working relationship between the state and Nebraska Families Collaborative. So far, they're sending the right message of cooperation.

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Lincoln Journal Star. August 25, 2017

Visitors, unity are lasting impact of eclipse

They came. They saw, presuming it wasn't too cloudy. Nebraska conquered.

In the span of three hours - with the big show lasting a maximum of 157 seconds - what was billed as the "Great American Eclipse" passed over Nebraska and into Missouri, not to mention the record books. Years of planning and promotion went off without any hitch, beyond some pesky clouds that rolled into southeastern Nebraska right around the moment of totality.

Monday's total solar eclipse drew "hundreds of thousands" of visitors to visit the Good Life, according to the Nebraska Tourism Commission, which also estimated the state received $133 million in publicity related to the phenomenon. Those numbers are staggering, likely proving true Gov. Pete Ricketts' prediction last month that the eclipse would be the state's largest-ever tourism event.

One thing that can't be quantified, though, is the impressive show of unity that stretched from border to border along Nebraska's 436-mile path of totality.

Calling it "Nebraska nice," while accurate, would be a bit corny. Thousands of people from all across the country and world came together, whether in Alliance, Ravenna, Lincoln, Beatrice, Falls City or elsewhere, for a collective experience became friends, even if only for a matter of minutes or hours, to share stories and a rare celestial occurrence.

Anecdotes stretched from the Wyoming state line to the Missouri River. Italian travelers and Nebraskans overcame a language barrier at a Hyannis gas station. Players from the Lincoln Saltdogs and Gary SouthShore Railcats lay on the field to stare at the sky during their baseball game's eclipse delay. (Yes, dogs and cats took in the eclipse together - without mass hysteria.)

Even on the steps of the state Capitol - the site of protests and rallies often fueled by anger and disagreement - people united for a communal experience, a scene in the heavens that transcended the daily grind on the ground.

The differences that so often divide - language, ideologies, geography, etc. - fell by the wayside as all looked to the sky.

For many who witnessed the eclipse, those memories will be just as indelible as the sky going dark. Partaking in the moment with complete strangers from around the country and the globe who piled into Nebraska will be remembered as fondly as seeing the surrounding landscape dim, being illuminated only by the solar corona that stretched far enough to be seen beyond the moon's outline.

The Cornhusker State won't again be in the path of a total solar eclipse until May 3, 2106, outside of most of our lifetimes. Still, it's clear that Nebraskans - and our worldwide guests - made this one count.

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The Grand Island Independent.  August 24, 2017

State prison reforms should get more time

It has been threatened for years, and it has finally come about. The ACLU filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Nebraska inmates in U.S. District Court, alleging that overcrowding in the state's prisons has led to unsafe conditions and that many prisoners aren't having medical conditions treated.

The state has known such a lawsuit could happen and has tried to take measures to lessen crowding, but they have had little impact.

The ACLU's 87-page lawsuit says "extreme" overcrowding is causing "needless suffering and death" of inmates. Staff also are facing unsafe conditions, it alleges.

The numbers seem to back the lawsuit's claims. Last week, Nebraska's prisons held 5,217 inmates. That is 160 percent of their capacity of 3,275.

The Omaha World-Herald reported that one state prison in Lincoln holds three times its capacity. It said dozens of inmates are forced to sleep on temporary plastic cots.

So the ACLU's concerns are valid. However, since 2015 Gov. Pete Ricketts and the Legislature have been trying to address the issue. This comes after Gov. Dave Heineman and his administration ignored the problem for the 10 years he was in office.

State officials have worked to reduce overcrowding through sentencing and parole reforms, but no significant reductions have been seen.

The Legislature authorized spending $26 million for an expansion of the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln. A new 100-bed modular dormitory will soon open there. Also, $75 million has been set aside for an addition for elderly and mentally ill inmates.

In addition, the state has been sending some inmates to county jails, such as the one in Hall County, through contracted arrangements.

So Ricketts and state senators have been making strides, just not enough to satisfy the ACLU.

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It is hoped that the state and the ACLU can continue discussions on ways to reduce Nebraska's prison population. State government taking measures is much better than having a federal court force specific actions.

A court decision could result in the early release of some prisoners to relieve overcrowding. This, though, could put public safety at risk if some dangerous prisoners are released before serving out their sentences.

Ricketts has called the lawsuit a threat to public safety. Dangerous criminals could be released, he said. Also, the courts could limit steps that the state could take to manage inmates.

"Over the past few years, all three branches of state government have made justice reinvestment and corrections reform a top priority," he said in a statement. "Together, we have invested millions of taxpayer dollars to protect public safety and expand state prisons."

While the ACLU's frustration is understandable, the best approach would be to give state officials, who are now taking the problem seriously, more time to find solutions.

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McCook Daily Gazette. August 24, 2017

Parents can help keep travel safe

We set out to write a school bus safety editorial today, concentrating on the need for other drivers to stop when they see a bus with flashing lights and extended stop sign.

Bus drivers can tell many stories of careless or ignorant drivers rolling by at full speed while young children are waiting to cross the street or road.

It's still an important message.

For the record, in Nebraska:

"Upon meeting or overtaking, from the front or rear, any school bus on which the yellow warning signal lights are flashing, the driver of a motor vehicle shall reduce the speed of such vehicle to not more than 25 mph, shall bring such vehicle to a complete stop when the school bus stop signal arm is extended and red signal lights are flashing, and shall remain stopped until the stop signal arm is retracted and the school bus resumes motion or until signaled by the bus driver to proceed."

Kansas has a simpler statement:

"It is unlawful to pass from either direction a school bus that is stopped with its lights flashing."

Surprisingly, however, in 2015-16, only one child was killed by another vehicle driving through a school bus stop arm and flashing light, according to the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, conducted annually by the Kansas State Department of Transportation School Bus Safety Unit.

Three of the four school children killed that year were hit by the school bus itself, students or siblings of passengers either being struck or run over by the school bus during loading or unloading. All the victims were under age 10.

The child who was killed by another vehicle was a 16-year-old crossing the street to board his bus.

Over the past 46 years, about 73 percent of the 1,230 deaths happened to schoolchildren under 9 years old.

Nearly 57 percent were linked to school-related vehicles as opposed to other vehicles.

As a first-day incident in Hastings illustrated, many incidents involve the schools transporting the students themselves.

Happily, the 4-year-old girl involved in the Hastings incident was not harmed, being accidentally left on the bus by a substitute driver after she failed to get off at the school-run preschool. A passerby noticed her after she got out at a bus barn.

A school official admitted a triple-redundant system had failed, and promised to take steps to make sure similar incidents didn't happen again.

Meanwhile, parents can help reinforce safety rules, offered by the National Safety Council, with their children:

Getting on the Bus:

When waiting for the bus, stay away from traffic and avoid roughhousing or other behavior that can lead to carelessness.

Line up away from the street or road as the bus approaches.

Wait until the bus has stopped and the door opens before approaching the bus.

Behavior on the Bus:

If seat belts are available on the bus, buckle up.

Don't speak loudly or make loud noises that could distract the driver.

Stay in your seat.

Don't put your head, arms or hands out the window.

Keep aisles clear of books and bags.

Get your belongings together before reaching your stop.

Wait for the bus to stop completely before getting up from your seat.

Getting Off the Bus:

If you have to cross in front of the bus, first walk at least 10 feet ahead until you can see the driver.

Make sure the driver can see you.

Wait for a signal from the driver before crossing

When the driver signals, look left, right, then left again. Walk across the road and keep an eye out for sudden traffic changes.

If your vision is blocked, move to an area where you can see other drivers and they can see you.

Do not cross the center line of the road until the driver signals it is safe.

Stay away from the rear wheels of the bus at all times.

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