Draining More Than Tax Dollars

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The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has fallen under serious scrutiny by the state Legislature and the governor after its falling-out with state Auditor, Mike Foley. But its services – particularly in the area of child welfare – have suffered greatly in the past few years.

Story and pictures by Renee Pflughaupt, NewsNetNebraska

The child welfare reform initiative, as attested by state auditor Mike Foley’s audit of the Department of Health and Human Services in September, is not going so well.

Millions in state tax dollars have been misappropriated since Nov. 2009, when welfare privatization began. Of the department’s five contracted companies, only two still provide services in the state.

Large as those numbers are, they pale in comparison to the decline in services to those people who work within and rely on the formerly state-run program.

The legislative committee on health and human services commissioned several studies to gauge the impact privatization has had child welfare services. The legislature has stepped in to oversee the department’s handling of child welfare, and has completed several interim studies in the past few months.

These studies show parents, attorneys and judges feel child welfare in Nebraska has not benefited from privatization.

In fact, foster parents are now more likely to leave the child welfare system altogether, Ombudsman Marshall Lux said.

The Ombudsman Office is a creation of state legislature to handle citizen complaints. A large bulk of these complaints, Lux said, consists of parents in the child welfare system. Lux added that the number of complaints has not increased as a result of privatization.

But “the nature of the complaints have changed,” Lux added.

Parents within the child welfare system feel ignored from their caseworkers and the system at large, Lux said. This was apparent from both a study his office compiled for the Health and Human Services Committee and the parents who walk into his office to file complaints.

Both foster and biological parents said a breakdown in communication was hurting the child welfare system. In fact, Lux said there have been complaints filed where parents – and neither the Ombudsman office – could contact the caseworker or their supervisors.

The breakdown in communication has touched every stage of child welfare. Sarah Helvey, Nebraska Appleseed staff attorney and director of Appleseed’s child welfare program, said attorneys across the state felt communication and timeliness to requests by private company caseworkers was inadequate.

Helvey said caseworkers’ large caseloads were the primary cause for worsened communication. Interestingly enough, attorneys rated their interactions with caseworkers better after the state stepped in for companies that broke their service contracts.

Judges throughout the state also remarked on the decline in prompt communication by welfare services in privatized sectors, Vicky Weisz, director of the Nebraska Court Improvement Project, said.

However, Weisz said, those judges also said that any issues of communication was caused by the system, not the individual caseworkers.

But, it’s the individual caseworker that interacts with parents within the welfare system. And, Lux said, parents, both biological and foster, feel slighted when they are shuffled several times a year between overworked caseworkers.

“Caseworkers are key to the whole thing,” Lux said.

Both the department and the state committee of health and human services have their work cut out to improve the patched-up child welfare system.

Lux likened it to the “Humpty-Dumpty Effect;” the department completely dismantled the state-only child welfare infrastructure and can never go back.

Lux, Helvey and Weisz all agreed, however, that something needs to change.

“The ones who are losing are the children [within the welfare system,]” said Lux.

“And that should bother all of us.”