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Gov. Dave Heineman weighs in on besieged child welfare reform

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Gov. Dave Heineman
Gov. Dave Heineman (AP file)

Gov. Dave Heineman weighed in Monday on child welfare reform, saying the state Department of Health and Human Services was headed in the right direction, but it was going to take time to get there.

At the same time, he said, both the state and lead providers have to do an "even better" job in the future. And the state is going to have to provide better oversight as private providers in the Omaha, Lincoln and southeast Nebraska service areas take on more of the responsibilities.

"I hope everybody realizes what we've been doing in the last 40 years hasn't worked," Heineman said of child welfare and foster care. "Nebraska has one of the largest percentages of out-of-home placements in America."

But change, he said, is difficult.

A number of child advocates, community groups and the Foster Care Review Board have complained in recent weeks that the state needs to slow down reform and reconsider laying off case managers and giving private providers more responsibility in foster care.

A group of senators has asked for a special investigative committee, modeled after the Beatrice State Developmental Center investigative committee, devoted to identifying problems with privatization of the child welfare system.

But the state has to consider what is best for the more than 4,500 children in out-of-home care, Heineman said.

"What is best for the kids is in-home placements, not institutional care," he said.

The idea of reform is to change the system so a large majority of children and families are getting services in their homes, and a minority are being removed from their homes and put in out-of-home placements. The state has opted for a public-private partnership to do that.

It started out late last year with five lead providers and is now down to two.

Having only government doing foster care hasn't worked effectively, Heineman said.

"The government's not a very good parent," he said. "I think we have to involve the private sector, nonprofits, charities and others in this effort."

Heineman said HHS is in favor of transparency and accountability, and the state knows it has to improve in those areas.

But parents of state wards and children put in voluntary foster care have responsibilities, too.

"Not in every case are they doing their job properly. Then they are turning to government and saying, ‘you take care of it.'"

He challenged the groups who have been opposed to elements of reform to offer their solutions.

"It's real easy to sit there and say, ‘I don't like the direction this is going,' but I don't hear a lot of solutions ...," he said.

Kathy Bigsby Moore, executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska said Monday afternoon her agency and others have been clear about solutions.

They requested that HHS delay transferring more responsibilities to private providers KVC and Nebraska Families Collaborative until April 1, rather than doing that by Jan. 1, as planned. That would help ensure their service coordinators are fully trained to handle the added responsibility that state case managers previously performed, Moore said.

State workers also need more training in oversight of contracts and delivery of services, she said.

Moore said that Voices for Children has also asked for months for focus groups, exit interviews and for HHS to meet with stakeholders.

They also want HHS to find a way to demonstrate the positive and negative effects of decreasing duplication of service coordinators and state case managers in Douglas County, before moving forward.

HHS has not shown any evidence in the one year reform has been in place that using state caseworkers has resulted in duplication, she said. There are other factors that have affected the cost of contracts for lead providers, including Medicaid, managed care coverage and court decisions on services for state wards.

If HHS is saying what they are doing by transferring more responsibility to providers in the Lincoln and Omaha areas is a pilot, the pilot is too large, Moore said.

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.

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