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In 2015, the inspector general for child welfare reported on a 22-month-old child who died in a kinship foster home from head trauma as a result of child abuse.

The parent received support from the Department of Health and Human Services, rather than one of the private agencies, and Inspector General Julie Rogers said HHS did not provide necessary and required supports, and did not come up with other placement options in a timely manner. 

Advocates of children in Nebraska's child welfare system joined Tuesday to bring attention to the effects of proposed state budget cuts that would impact foster kids, including allowing HHS to take over support for half of those placed with relatives or people they know, considered relative and kinship placements. 

They are concerned about $16 million in cuts recommended by the governor over two years to child welfare spending, including $4 million to eliminate a contract for Right Turn, which provides post-adoption services to help families stay together through crisis; $1.8 million to end family finding contracts; $1.3 million for cuts to targeted services; and $9 million to transfer more than half of those relative and kinship placements to HHS from private agencies. 

Gov. Pete Ricketts' spokesman Taylor Gage said the governor's budget recommendation protects child welfare reform, adds new caseworkers and invests in new technology to deliver better services.

"Under his proposal, DHHS would have the resources and staff they need to provide the services previously covered by expensive contractors," Gage said. "We continue to look for ways to improve services and reduce costs."

The Appropriations Committee, in its deliberations over the budget, has made changes to restore funding for family finding contracts, and its recommended cuts now stand at $14.45 million. It has restored $3.2 million for the Right Turn contract.

With the shift of half of kinship placements to HHS, about 540, caseworkers would be asked to take on additional responsibilities, when the department has yet to meet caseload standards in state law, said Sarah Helvey, Nebraska Appleseed child welfare director.  

Kim Hawekotte, executive director of the Foster Care Review Office, which reviews about 4,000 case files a year of foster children in out-of-home care, said in the past two years the system had started to improve after years of instability. 

Although the number fluctuates, about 4,120 children are in out-of-home care in Nebraska. The numbers have increased in the past 18 months, in part because kids are not exiting as quickly as they should. Fifty-nine percent are placed with relatives, Hawekotte said. 

People need to ask how to ensure that the needs of families with relative and kinship placements are being met. Now, most of them have support from private agencies such as Cedars, she said. 

"How can we expect case managers, who already perform more duties than they need to, to be able to take on additional duties?" she asked. 

During a discussion on the HHS-kinship placement issue Tuesday in the Appropriations Committee, Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart again voiced her concern about the lack of an adequate HHS plan to take over those cases. 

She would like to put reporting requirements for those placements in the budget bill. And she wants to make it a priority for the Legislature to restore the money if the state's fiscal picture improves in the next month. 

Former Sen. Amanda McGill Johnson, who now works for Nebraska Children's Home Society, said when she first came to the Legislature, the safe haven law that allowed parents and guardians to relinquish custody of any age of children at Nebraska hospitals exposed the unmet behavioral health needs of youth.

The child welfare system has made progress since those days, she said. 

"But these cuts put that all at great risk," she said.

Helvey said: "Our ask today is for the Legislature to remember the promise we made that we would never again turn our back on families who are in crisis. The governor's proposal would signify an end to that promise."

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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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