Reform of the child welfare system in Nebraska was launched in late 2009 with high hopes.
Advocates of the privatization effort known as Families Matter said children, many of whom have been removed from homes because of abuse and neglect, would receive better care and the system would be more efficient.
Instead the effort has lurched from one problem to another. Foster families -- a critical part of the child welfare system -- are dropping out. Replacements are difficult to find.
Cedars, which operates the only emergency shelter in the area for children in crisis, is frequently full, according to Jim Blue, president of the nonprofit agency. Cedars has been forced to turn away placements because there has been no room.
The shelter is intended only for short-term placements. But the average stay is rising in length, up to 56 days last month compared to 42 days the year before. Blue said the emergency shelter is being forced to operate more as a group home. "I have never seen it this bad in my 25 years of working with Lincoln's abused and neglected children," Blue said.
Underlying the problems in the reform effort are continuing financial woes.
Three of the private providers pulled out of the privatization plan because they were going broke. One of the providers, Visinet, did in fact file for bankruptcy, although a federal judge dismissed the request.
Last week more financial difficulties surfaced when KVC, one of two remaining lead contractors, laid off 75 workers to reduce costs.
Meanwhile state officials announced that state government would pour more money into privatization. KVC will receive $5.5 million more in the current fiscal year. Another $7 million will be added to its $44 million contract for next year. Nebraska Families Collaborative, the other lead agency, will receive $14.2 million next fiscal year, compared to $13.8 million this year.
That trend is likely to continue, based on comments to state senators on a committee formed this year to evaluate child welfare reform. Jack Tweedie of the National Conference of State Legislatures said that child welfare costs doubled in Florida and rose significantly in Kansas after privatization.
In 2008, federal officials criticized Nebraska's system for lapses in providing permanency and stability for children's living situations, low adoption rates, high worker caseloads and other problems.
The reform effort was supposed to bring change for the better. But the months roll by and there still is precious little sign that things are improving. Figures in May for southeastern Nebraska show that the number of children who are wards of the state has increased from 1803 in December 2009 to 1814 this May. The percentage of wards in out-of-home care has also increased from 62.5 percent to 63.5 percent.