Carol Stitt

Carol Stitt. (LJS 2007 file photo)

The 29-year executive director of the Foster Care Review Board could be asked to resign or be fired at a board meeting Friday.

The morning meeting has one agenda item: Executive Director Carol Stitt's annual evaluation.

Board Chairwoman Georgie Scurfield said only the board would review Stitt's performance at the meeting. She said she would talk about it only after the board meets and makes a decision.

The Foster Care Review Board has been dogged by controversy involving alleged conflicts of interest and political vendettas since it was created by the Legislature in 1982 to be an independent state agency.

It consists of 11 members appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature. The board hires the executive director.

The board's mission is to watch over the safety, quality of placements and service providers for the state's more than 4,000 foster children. It oversees 350 volunteers on 48 local foster care review boards.

As its leader, Stitt has had a reputation for intensity in her role of oversight and in working with senators. She has been described at different times as strong-willed, passionate, a powerful advocate for children, confrontational and divisive.

Judges have described her as deeply needed to advocate for children. In 2009, Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican presented Stitt with the Chief Justice's Child Advocacy Award for her contributions to the Nebraska judicial system as an advocate for children.

He recognized her "unmatched reputation" for watching over foster children and the "extraordinarily difficult" work she does.

She has had her differences with board members, though. And in 2010, she served a 60-day suspension for what a federal agency said was violation of the Hatch Act, which governs political activity of federal workers and affects some state and local government employees. A violation is a civil action, not a criminal one.

At least one member of the Legislature would like to dismantle the board and move the agency under the wing of the Legislature, the branch of government for which it was created to be a watchdog.

With the bill (LB998), introduced this week by Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, a member of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, the executive director would be appointed by the Legislature and the director would report directly to the chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee.

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The Foster Care Review Board was created by the Legislature to get critical information on the child welfare system, Krist said Thursday. In the past few years, he said, he believes the board filtered that information.

He would like the board to delay any action it plans to take on Stitt's position until after LB998 is acted on. Changing leadership now during a critical time in child welfare reform, he said, is counterproductive to efforts by the HHS Committee and Legislature to address reform.

Numerous bills have been introduced this session, following the release of a 400-page report with recommendations and data gathered over the past year.

Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell, chairwoman of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, said Thursday that Stitt and her staff were particularly helpful as the committee worked through the investigation and report authorized by Legislative Resolution 37.

They provided explanations and timely updates of data, she said.

"One of the things that I have realized is how important the information is to the Legislature, and we do not want to be at any time at a point where information that is collected may not be available to the Legislature," she said.

John Seyfarth, a former chairman of the Foster Care Review Board from Papillion, said it would be tragic for the board to fire Stitt.

"I'm just sick ... because Carol is a wonderful person," he said.

Seyfarth said he believes board members have conflicts of interest, in that they receive money from HHS.

A 2008 performance audit of the review board addressed the issue and found no votes had been taken during the period reviewed that presented a conflict of interest for any members.

It also found a reasonable person might question whether a board member whose employer receives substantial funding from HHS would be able to be critical of HHS if needed.

A bill (LB929) introduced this session by Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill would require that no Foster Care Review Board member or his or her employer receive any funds from the Department of Health and Human Services. 

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Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com -- You can follow JoAnne's tweets at twitter.com/ljslegislature.



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