A legislative committee learned Tuesday about the effect child welfare privatization is having on foster and biological parents, attorneys and judges.
The Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, which is conducting an interim study of reform and privatization, heard more than five hours of testimony Tuesday on surveys and reports from the ombudsman's office, the courts, Nebraska Appleseed, Foster Care Review Board, probation office and legislative fiscal office.
The ombudsman's office surveyed biological and foster parents on how the state Department of Health and Human Services, lead contractors and foster care providers, such as Cedars and Christian Heritage, are doing their jobs.
Parents said communication was a problem with both HHS and lead contractors. Foster care providers scored better.
Foster parents said they didn't get enough information on children before they were placed in their homes, and foster care payments weren't adequate.
Biological parents rated the system low in responding to requests for assistance and helping with problems and resources.
A common theme with biological parents was that caseworkers were judgmental, and did not respect their views or consider their input. About half of them said they felt their caseworkers did not want them to succeed in reuniting with their children.
The report was valuable, said Ombudsman Marshall Lux, because it offered foster parents and biological parents the opportunity to be heard.
The missing piece in the troubled reform initiative has been legislative oversight, he said.
Bureaucracies, which frequently have both internal and external communication problems and a level of arrogance, tend to act differently when they know people are watching. That oversight is critical, he said.
In another survey, attorneys who work with child welfare cases rated areas with privatization lower on 14 elements of child welfare, including availability of and timely access to services, caseworker responsiveness and turnover, and quality of case plans.
In a separate survey, judges said they have seen an increased need for judicial monitoring of the system since reform went into effect nearly two years ago.
They rated eight areas as worse or the same since privatization, including child well being and safety, number of contested hearings and continuation of hearings.
When asked if they thought privatization as structured now would ever be successful, they were not optimistic.
The move to privatization has resulted in higher costs, a report from the legislative fiscal office and the state auditor's report confirmed.
Going forward, the state is giving less money to lead contractors in 2011-12. Significant changes will be needed to stay within those contracted amounts, said the report written by fiscal analyst Liz Hruska.
Fewer children must enter care, and getting state wards into permanent homes must speed up. The contracts assume there will be a 15 percent reduction in the number of children served.
"The two contractors and (HHS Chief Executive Officer) Kerry Winterer believe this is possible and will not be the result of simply denying needed services," the report said.
If the number isn't reduced, the report said, it's likely further amendments to the contract will be needed.
Committee member Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said assuming the state will serve 15 percent fewer children and families this year is flawed.
The committee will put the reports received Tuesday together with other testimony from hearings, the state auditor's report and a performance audit due out in November for a final report in December.