Advocates raise red flag on proposed repeal of majority of Nebraska child welfare regulations

Advocates raise red flag on proposed repeal of majority of Nebraska child welfare regulations

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Nearly 200 pages of child welfare regulations are proposed for repeal by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and will be replaced by less than a dozen pages of regulations on adoption, the Indian Child Welfare Act and alternative response.

A hearing on the proposed changes is scheduled to be held Monday.

A number of child advocates say they're concerned about the wholesale repeal of the regulations, and what that means for transparency and the rights of children and parents, and the clarity of issues for child welfare professionals.

The repealed regulations include consensus on decision-making, defining staff roles, clarifying intake for child protective services cases, maltreatment definitions, including abuse and neglect, safety determination for children, guaranteeing certain services for children and families, and setting forth appeals processes.

Dannette Smith, CEO of the department, said HHS is doing an overall review of its programs, including child welfare. 

The regulations now being proposed for child welfare were drafted to put the safety of children first, align with laws and remove regulations that were deemed self-governing, had antiquated terminology or were difficult to understand, Smith said.

"The department," she said, "will continue to govern in a means that complies with all state and federal statutes and encourages transparency."

Juliet Summers, policy coordinator for Voices for Children in Nebraska, plans to testify at the hearing that the state's response to child maltreatment should be transparent and clear, and not handled for the most part by policy and practice, which can be changed frequently.

Policy and practice would be more difficult for families to understand than defined regulations that are subject to public hearing, Summers said.

Voices for Children supports updating and modernizing regulations, and meeting more families' needs safely in their homes, she said.

"We have grave concerns that the proposed changes to our child welfare regulation overshoot the mark, removing too much and leaving too little," Summers said.

If the proposed changes are adopted, she said, families facing child welfare proceedings would have little-to-no regulatory framework to guide them about intake and assessment, how ongoing cases are handled, and how the department would determine permanent homes for children, out-of-home placements and other issues affecting their rights and family well-being.

Voices for Children is a longtime supporter of Alternative Response, an approach to working with families to safely care for children in their own homes and communities, to avoid the trauma of removal, she said. 

But eliminating so much of the regulation and adding changes is concerning. With the proposed changes, children could remain in unsafe environments, she said, without quick assessment and intervention.

Sarah Helvey, program director and staff attorney for Nebraska Appleseed's child welfare program, is also worried that the regulations proposed for repeal cover important processes in child welfare.

She said the department is required to have regulations that cover key private rights, such as intake procedures, so they can be clarified for people in the system and child welfare professionals.

For example, regulations that are proposed for repeal involve conditions for removal of children from their parents' home. Regulations currently state that law enforcement determines when the child is to be placed in protective custody, that there be a court order to remove the child from the home and that the child is in a harmful or dangerous situation.

Regulations carry the force of law, and can be more readily enforced, Helvey said.

Kim Hawekotte, executive director of the Nebraska Foster Care Review Office, is also expected to testify.

In fiscal year 2018-19, the office tracked information on the experiences of 7,321 children who were removed from their homes and put into state custody or care through the child welfare or juvenile probation systems.

It found that many problems in child welfare and juvenile justice remain to be addressed and some new issues have arisen. They include:

* Nebraska families continue to struggle with substance use, domestic violence and access to mental health treatment.

* Child welfare officials have not yet made significant improvements to persistent issues such as too many caseworker changes, children with multiple removals from their homes, adjudication delays, courts inconsistently holding required exception hearings, and older children infrequently attending court hearings that will impact their future.

* Juvenile probation continues to have challenges across the state providing community-based services needed to prevent removals from the home, and creating transition plans for youth returning to their communities.

* For the second year in a row, there was a decrease in the number of state wards, mainly because of more families being served via in-home, noncourt services. However, it is unclear if those families are faring better because the Foster Care Review Office does not have authority to provide oversight to the front end of the child welfare system, there is no court involvement, and there is no other independent oversight to that part of the system.

Monday's hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. in the Gold’s Building, Room 534, in downtown Lincoln.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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