The leaders of the Nebraska Legislature on Friday defended the role of their inspector general for child welfare to hold the state Probation Office accountable, after representatives of the state's judicial branch said the inspector general's annual report had no credibility.
Legislative Speaker Jim Scheer, Executive Board Chairman Dan Watermeier and Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Laura Ebke issued a news release Friday emphasizing lawmakers' role in oversight of state agencies to bring about improvements.
They expressed concern the state Probation Office has not cooperated with Inspector General Julie Rogers or worked with her to resolve serious issues.
They said Rogers and her staff play an invaluable role in helping the Legislature fulfill its responsibility to oversee the child welfare and juvenile justice system.
"We appreciate their expertise and hard work to help us do what's best for Nebraska's youth," the senators said.
The judicial branch is an entity unto itself, and probably thinks it doesn't need any oversight, Watermeier said in an interview.
"But we fund it. We need to have a little bit of an oversight and we need to all work together," he said. "We're all on the same page. It's just that ... they don't value the fact that we have to be accountable to everybody, all our constituents."
It's the Legislature's only way to have insight into what's going on with those juvenile justice cases, he said.
Rogers issued her annual report on Wednesday, criticizing the Office of Probation's lack of response to her recommendations over several years regarding their handling of some juvenile justice cases. The judicial branch fired back saying they had no obligation to respond.
The judicial branch statement came on letterhead with the names of State Court Administrator Corey Steel and State Probation Administrator Ellen Fabian Brokofsky at the top.
The statement said no credibility whatsoever should be given to Rogers' report, and that Nebraska judges, courts administrators and local probation offices had light-years more experience than anyone in the inspector general's office.
They said they had considered her recommendations, but they are in the business of developing youth, an important job, and they do so in a collaborative manner.
Rogers had been critical of the way the case of a 17-year-old, who committed suicide, had been handled. Another youth who was supervised by the Probation Office was the victim of a homicide.
Watermeier said the youths in the juvenile justice program were turned over to the judicial branch several years ago from the Department of Health and Human Services. The Legislature has the same type of oversight of those programs in HHS.
"She's doing work that needs to be done and we're going to support that," he said of Rogers.
Ebke said the inspector general's watchdog role is an appropriate one for the Legislature to have.
"It's just a difference of opinion on what the appropriate oversight should be," Ebke said.
In their release, the senators noted the improvements to HHS programs and facilities, citing in particular the youth rehabilitation centers, as the result of past inspector general investigations and recommendations.
"The (Office of Inspector General) process works as is exemplified by CEO Courtney Phillips and her department working constructively with the Legislature to resolve issues revealed by (Rogers') investigations," they said.
While the senators said they respect the judicial branch, all branches of government must be accountable to each other.
"Julie Rogers and her staff are a tremendous asset to the Nebraska Legislature," they said.
This is not the first time the judicial branch and the Legislature have clashed over the inspector general role.
Two years ago, the state Probation Office was unhappy with Rogers' annual report that said there was a lack of progress on juvenile justice after 15 months of being within the probation office.
Brokofsky said at the time the report had inaccurate information, used assumptions and anecdotes that were not necessarily factual and took some issues out of context. The report was highly critical of an office working to improve the system, Brokofsky said.
At that time, the Probation Office said it was committed to reforming juvenile justice and had already begun positively impacting the lives of state's youths and families.