LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers are gearing up to finish a session that has focused largely on children, including those in foster care, the criminal justice system and juveniles who need psychiatric treatment.
Legislation passed this year will attempt to make it easier to place foster children with friends or relatives, and to protect minors who fall victim to human trafficking. Lawmakers have passed a bill that would expand child care subsidies for low-income families. Still another measure would extend the age in which former state wards can receive housing assistance.
Many of the bills are part of the state's ongoing child welfare reforms, as well as an effort to restore funding for services that were cut in previous years.
"I feel like in the past, we were always responding to a crisis in the child welfare system," said Sen. Amanda McGill of Lincoln, who introduced several of the bills. "This year, we were able to build upon the things that we've fixed, and tried to go the extra step to make sure our programs are most effective at helping kids."
Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee chairwoman, said lawmakers plan to continue the push for child services next year, and to follow up with those changes that are now in place. Last year, lawmakers created an 18-member children's commission to monitor Nebraska's child services, after the state's failed effort to privatize services for state wards and foster care children. Campbell said the commission's recommendations will help direct how lawmakers should proceed.
"I think the Legislature has maintained its vigilance on the child welfare system, and I think we're going to have to stay vigilant," Campbell said.
Lawmakers have also voted to create a test program that would offer mental health screenings to children, using computer technology to connect them remotely with psychiatrists. The program, overseen by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, would include three health clinics, with at least one in an urban area and one in a rural setting.
McGill said the bill is an extension of the promise she made to reform youth mental health services in the wake of Nebraska's safe haven law in 2008. The law was designed to protect newborns from being abandoned, but led to a rash of parents who left adolescents and teenagers at hospitals.
Many parents at the time cited a lack of mental health services in Nebraska, which left them no alternative.
McGill said 88 of the 93 counties in Nebraska have mental health professional shortages. The pilot clinics would be located in cities that already have mental health professionals. The pilot project would end two years after the law takes effect, unless lawmakers renew it.
Last week, Gov. Dave Heineman approved an overhaul of Nebraska's juvenile justice services. The multi-faceted bill by Sen. Brad Ashford, of Omaha, includes $14.5 million for juvenile services and a grant program to help counties treat young criminal offenders. It also would transfer the supervision of juvenile offenders to the state's Office of Probation Administration, under the Nebraska Supreme Court. Juvenile offenders are currently overseen by the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Another measure by Sen. Colby Coash, of Lincoln, would allow relatives and family friends — such as a teacher, coach or childcare provider — to care for a state ward without obtaining a regular foster care license. The bill, signed into law last week maintains the safety requirements that foster care parents must meet, but eases the training requirements that some child advocates criticized as too stringent.
"The idea is to meet the needs of a child in the least traumatic way possible," Coash said. "The requirements to become a foster parent are high, as they should be. But they ought to take into consideration whether someone already has a relationship with that child."