Sen. Merv Riepe

Sen. Merv Riepe listens to a colleague speak on the floor of the legislature in March.

The head of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee and a division director for the state HHS Department both opposed a proposal Monday that would create a special oversight panel to address deaths and abuse in Nebraska's child welfare system.

Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston, the HHS Committee chairman, told the Legislature's Executive Board that oversight lies with his committee, and a special oversight committee wasn't needed.

Matt Wallen, director of children and family services for HHS, said the department already works with, participates on or is subject to oversight and recommendations from roughly 30 committees, commissions, work groups, advisory organizations and task forces. The inspector general of child welfare, the Foster Care Review Office, the Child and Maternal Death Review Team, the governor's commission and federal agencies also provide oversight. 

The child and family services division also submits more than 30 quarterly and annual reports to the Legislature.

Riepe and Wallen came out against a proposed oversight committee during a hearing Monday afternoon. The committee would be formed under a resolution (LR228) sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz.

Bolz called for the Nebraska Child Welfare Death and Abuse Special Oversight Committee after the inspector general documented 22 children involved with the child welfare system who died or were seriously injured, and separately identified 50 cases of sexual abuse of state wards, youth in adoptive or guardian homes and youth in residential placement.

Membership on the oversight committee would include the chairperson of the state child and maternal death review team, the executive director of the Foster Care Review Office, the inspector general of child welfare, the state court administrator, chairpersons of the Legislature's Health and Human Services and Judiciary committees, and three other state lawmakers appointed by the Executive Board.

At the hearing, Bolz said Inspector General for Child Welfare Julie Rogers has repeatedly noted in annual reports that HHS has never complied with minimum caseload standards required by law since 2012. 

The issues and problems involved cross HHS divisions, the judiciary and legislative committees, and deserve action, attention and involvement by multiple agencies and stakeholders, Bolz said. 

Sarah Helvey with Nebraska Appleseed said an oversight committee would give needed focus on the issues to prevent future deaths and sexual abuse. 

Juliet Summers of Voices for Children in Nebraska said the issues deserve the scrutiny of the Legislature.

"We believe that this body, as well as the executive branch, has a duty to ensure that this stops now," she said.

The number of child deaths and sexual assaults are intolerable, and every effort must be made to remedy the systemic factors that underlie them, Summers said. 

Bolz said most concerning was the number of items in the inspector general's report that were not in compliance with existing law, including caseload standards, failure to call the hotline or law enforcement, instances in which allegations of sexual abuse were not investigated, and areas where the division of public health did not have the capacity to adequately investigate and respond to sexual abuse allegations at residential facilities. 

"These are complex areas of law that aren't working as they should and deserve a response for the safety and well-being of our kids," Bolz said. 

The Executive Board did not take a vote Monday on advancement of the resolution.

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

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


State government reporter

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

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