Nebraska groups slam child welfare reform effort

By Margery A. Beck
Lincoln, Nebraska (AP) November 2010

Several groups complained publicly last week that agencies hired by the state to manage parts of Nebraska’s child welfare system have refused to work with attorneys in cases involving state wards, failed to return phone calls or even tell authorities where foster children have been placed for weeks. Voices for Children in Nebraska, Nebraska Appleseed and others gathered in Lincoln to release a letter signed by more than 800 organizations and individuals calling on the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services for more information, transparency and accountability in the state’s child welfare reform process. The letter is being sent to Gov. Dave Heineman and officials with the state Health and Human Services Department.

Last November, the state began to transfer control of foster care and other child welfare services to independent contractors. But since April, the state has lost three of its five contractors due to financial concerns, and at least two of the companies said the state wasn’t paying them enough. That has left the state with only two providers – KVC and Nebraska Families Collaborative.

The groups voicing their complaints last week said children and parents in the child welfare system are suffering because of the changes.

Lancaster County Attorney Gary Lacey said KVC workers managing the cases in the state’s foster care system have repeatedly refused to give any information about the children they oversee to prosecutors, defense attorneys and even judges in parental rights and child welfare cases.

Lacey recounted one instance in which a KVC worker who had been called as a witness in a child welfare case refused to speak to an attorney in his office.

“The KVC worker told him, `I’m not allowed to talk to you,”’ Lacey recalled. When pressed about why she believed she could not talk to the attorney about the child’s case, Lacey said the worker responded, “That’s what the Health and Human Services Department said.”

Lacey said he thinks the privatization process needs to be slowed, and that children’s welfare is a matter for the state, not private businesses.

Others at the meeting said the private agencies’ workers lack proper training regarding requirements under state and federal law.

That includes failing to inform native American tribal officials where children who are tribal members have been placed in foster care – a violation of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act.

“We’ve lost children for four to six weeks; we had no idea where they were,” said Gale Jungemann-Schultz with the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska.

KVC director of public affairs Tami Soper said she was unaware of complaints regarding violations of the Indian Child Welfare Act or trouble reaching KVC case managers. But she confirmed that HHS has required KVC case managers not to speak to attorneys in family service cases and instead direct them to HHS caseworkers.

“There were times we were placed between kind of a rock and a hard spot,” Soper said. “Some of the requirements within our contract are specific to us doing what the department asks us to do.”

Todd Reckling, who oversees child and family services for HHS, said the state department simply wanted private contract workers and state caseworkers to talk to each other first, then provide the information to attorneys and others requesting information on specific cases.

“So it wasn’t that they couldn’t talk to them, we just wanted to make sure there weren’t opportunities for misinformation or triangulation between the parties and people only getting pieces of the information,” Reckling said.

The complaints regarding communication on court cases have been taken into consideration by both KVC and the state health agency, Soper said, which is why the Department of Health and Human Services is suggesting the state move oversight of some foster child cases from state caseworkers to its private contractors.

“The proposed changes will streamline that communication so that those folks that are working with the families on a daily basis, meaning the KVC folks, will actually be in a better position to be able to communicate,” Soper said.