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State to give more oversight to private foster care contractors
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State to give more oversight to private foster care contractors

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The state Department of Health and Human Services will give private foster care contractors more responsibilities and a few million more dollars each, officials announced Friday.

Turning over some oversight to private contractors KVC and Nebraska Families Collaborative will mean a number of state workers will lose their jobs in the next few weeks or months, said Todd Reckling, director of children and family services for the state.

No layoffs were announced Friday.

The changes in the eastern and southeastern service areas are to be fully implemented by Jan. 1.

Child advocates questioned Friday's announcement, voicing concern about the department's piecemeal approach to reform and the impact of change on children and families.

The state has about 450 children and family service specialists across the state. Those specialists are the ones who worked with private contractors' service coordinators on individual foster care cases. As the state moves more responsibility to the contractors, some of those state jobs will be lost, Reckling said.

But the department will continue to need experienced children and family services staff in child welfare and juvenile services for all the core functions the state retains, he said.

Those include taking children into the system and doing initial safety assessments and investigations of their cases, Reckling said. It also will have final decision-making authority in working with the courts and determining if reasonable efforts are being made to preserve or reunite families.

By law, the state has ultimate responsibility for children in its custody.

The state will have oversight of foster care, but is still working to define what that oversight will look like, said Kerry Winterer, CEO of the department.

It also is still designing the list of rules and responsibilities for contractors, Reckling said. Those responsibilities will center on more day-to-day services for families and placement decisions for children.

Out-of-home foster care reform has been in place close to a year, with state workers having oversight of cases and private contractors doing the day-to-day service coordination. Winterer said parents, foster parents and others involved in the system have had problems knowing who to call or communicate with about daily issues.

State and contractor duties have in some cases been duplicated, and people are confused, Winterer said.

KVC president Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez said transferring case management to the contractors reduces duplication. Service coordinators were spending a lot of time funneling paperwork and requests through the state. There were a lot of delays that come from multiple people making decisions.

"There were a lot of cogs in the wheel," she said. "This will streamline a lot of the care."

Parents and other providers can talk to KVC directly, she said. It will be clear who to call.

And, she said, it should reduce some of the turnover that contractors have experienced. A lot of workers have felt there wasn't a lot of stability in the system.

"This solidifies reform in the east and southeast areas," she said.

Winterer said Nebraska has received $9.8 million in one-time federal emergency funding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Six million dollars of state general funds will be redirected to the contractors, who will split the amount. The remaining $3.8 million has not been designated, he said.

KVC and Nebraska Family Collaborative, as well as three other lead providers -- Cedars, Visinet and Boys and Girls Home -- who have dropped out of their contracts in the past year, have shored up the reform effort with millions of dollars of their own money.

Boys and Girls Home ended its contract on Friday. The other two ended theirs in April.

Winterer said the department has issued a request for qualifications of other private providers to take over the three service areas for which Boys and Girls Home had contracts. Reckling said at least two providers, one from out of state, have called HHS to inquire about the northern, central and western service areas.

The department is moving forward with reform and has talked about seeing positive results in its effort to care for more children in their homes rather than in foster care.

The percentage of Nebraska children in out-of-home care has averaged in the range of 65 percent, sometimes higher or lower, in the past 10 years. It is still in that range.

Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell said she was frustrated with the announcement Friday of yet another change in the reform effort.

"Once again there's another Friday afternoon announcement saying, ‘This is the way it's going to work now. ... There's no discussion of the long-term plan.'

"We really do need to see the big picture," she said.

The department went to the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee recently to discuss budget issues, and there was no mention of the changes announced Friday, she said.

"I have to say I'm disappointed there wasn't some discussion of this," she said.

"The Legislature has a role to play in this because of the seriousness of the welfare of children."

Nebraska Appleseed Director Rebecca Gould said her agency is concerned about the impact of such a substantial change on children and families, especially when the system is already in a state of flux.

"We had hoped that the state would take some time to fully re-evaluate the structure of this reform and whether it makes sense for Nebraska. Instead, this decision, made without stakeholder input, will more fully privatize the system without evidence that the existing reform plan is sustainable," Gould said.

The loss of state caseworkers is also a concern, she said. And the state's ability to oversee its contracts remains a question.

"HHS has been scrambling from one crisis to another since this process began, seemingly without any clear plan, direction, or input from the Legislature," Gould said. "This reform plan needs to be examined with real transparency and accountability, perhaps through the Legislature."

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

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