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Tammy Lee Fatino and her husband started their journey to adopt two foster children in 2010.

They wanted to model for their five children what it meant to give, and be a good steward of things given to them. They only intended to be foster parents but ended up adopting their two young foster children. 

"I admittedly was not equipped," Fatino said. 

She came to a time when she was ready to quit, and in desperation called Right Turn, a support program for Nebraska's adoptive families with voluntary post-adoption and post-guardianship services.

"I wanted to throw the towel in," she told the Appropriations Committee Tuesday afternoon. "I was overwhelmed. I didn't know what I was going to do."

She came to testify because Gov. Pete Ricketts proposed that the state end a contract with Right Turn and shift those services to Department of Health and Human Services staff.

The services are not federally mandated, the department has argued, and there are no federal matching funds. The savings to the state would be $2 million each year of the 2017-19 budget.

Right Turn saved Fatino's family, she said. 

"I don't know what I would have done without Right Turn," she said. "With the tools that they have given us as a family, and help to overcome these obstacles, I'm back in the game and I'm committed for life."

Opponents of proposed budget cuts to services for children and families in the Department of Health and Human Services filled an Appropriations Committee hearing room Tuesday afternoon.

Many of the opponents focused on these proposals by Gov. Pete Ricketts:  

* Elimination of the contract for post-adoption and post-guardianship services; 

* Shifting costs of conducting background checks for foster parents going through the licensing process from the department to 22 private child-placing foster care providers to save $170,000 each year; 

* Having HHS staff provide support to 50 percent of children placed in relative and kinship foster homes, and also license these homes;

* Reducing provider rates by an average of 2.2 percent for group homes and emergency shelters, family support services and drug testing.

Rather than reduce the provider rates, the Appropriations Committee has recommended raising them by 1 percent. And its preliminary budget has recommended restoring about $9 million to child welfare from Ricketts' recommended cuts in each of the two years.

Jim Blue, CEO of Cedars children and youth services, told the committee the state desperately needs foster parents, and a rate reduction as proposed by the governor would only make things worse. Even a 1 percent increase is functionally going backward, he said. 

Erin Bader, director of permanency and well-being programs for Lutheran Family Services, also spoke against eliminating the Right Turn contract, saying the private agency has had overwhelming success and is a cost saver for Nebraska. 

Since its creation in 2010, Right Turn has served 974 families, and of those only 14 ended in dissolved adoptions, a 98.6 percent success rate, she said.

"When a child is returned back to the child welfare system, the cost for both the child and the state is huge," she said. 

The state pays $34.24 a day for six months of Right Turn case management services, Bader said. If the child is returned to the state, the cost can be hundreds of dollars a day.

Mike Betzold, CEO of Better Living Counseling Services, said that HHS' proposal to support about 450 relative and kinship placements, half of the 900, with 14 additional staff is a ratio of 32:1.

"This scenario does not set those families or those caseworkers up for success," Betzold said. "In addition, this will cause children to languish in the system, costing the department more money." 

Also, having the department provide a service and regulate it at the same time is a perceived, if not a real, conflict of interest, he said. 

Julie Rogers, Nebraska inspector general of child welfare, testified in a neutral position. It is her job to hold the child welfare system accountable for efficient, cost effective operations, integrity and high performance. 

Rogers has reported that between June 2013 and June 2015, 11 children in Nebraska who recently had been the subject of a child abuse or neglect investigation died or were seriously injured as a result of abuse or neglect. 

A high caseload for HHS workers is chief among the challenges in protecting children, she said. 

"Until the caseload and workload problem of caseworkers is fixed," Rogers said in her testimony, "the child welfare system and the children and families it is designed to serve will continue to suffer." 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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