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Focus continues on children

After some poorly conceived and developed legislation created a "safe haven" debacle a few years ago, the Nebraska Legislature has bounced back conscientiously in responding to child welfare issues. The "safe haven" experience exposed serious problems and deficiencies in the state's response to children in difficult and negative, if not dangerous, circumstances involving parenting and family life.

Among the efforts to improve the child-welfare system, including establishment of a Nebraska Children's Commission for oversight, has been attention to upgrading the use and governance of foster care. This year, for example, four legislative bills are on a path to enactment.

LB 530, now pending on final reading, proposes to upgrade the rates paid to those who provide foster care for children. It stems from recommendations made by a temporary study committee set up by legislation in 2012.

As of July 1, 2014, monthly rates would increase from: $436 to $608 for infants through age 5; $592 to $699 for ages 6 through 11; and $685 to $760 for older children.

With LB 265, Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln seeks to make it easier for foster children to be placed in kinship homes and relative homes. The bill also has advanced to final reading.

LB 265 would make state licensure optional for kinship homes and relative homes. Approval by the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), involving a home visit and criminal background checks, still would be required.

LB 216 seeks to work against poor outcomes for young people who "age out" of foster care. Given the title Young Adult Voluntary Services and Support Act, this legislation would make it possible for 19- and 20-year-olds - former state wards - who meet prescribed eligibility criteria, to voluntarily enter into an agreement with DHHS for extended services, including medical assistance, post-secondary-education, residential placement, continued foster-care maintenance and case management.

LB 216 was advanced to the full Legislature by the Health and Human Services Committee and as of April 16 had advanced to the second round of floor debate. The projected annual cost of about $7 million (half from federal funds) could be a barrier.

Relative to federal funding, LB 269, which also is now pending at the second stage of consideration by the full Legislature, would direct DHHS to capture all allowable foster-care maintenance costs from the pertinent federal law. A previously legislated Medicaid crossover analysis pointed out such opportunities.

These four bills seek positive reforms that make the foster care system better for the children.

But another bill pertaining to foster care, LB 385, does not fit that characterization in the view of the Nebraska Catholic Conference (NCC). In fact, the NCC, under the direction of the three diocesan bishops, is opposed to the bill and submitted testimony reflecting that position.

LB 385 proposes to dictate that DHHS "not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, marital status, or national origin" when determining "the suitability of any out-of-home placement of a juvenile."

Obviously, the intent of that provision is to statutorily authorize foster care placements in households with one or more unmarried adults, including same-sex partners. But the wording is deceptively ambiguous, especially so given the fact the sentence that follows says placement decisions "shall be made based upon the health, safety, and well-being of the child."

Fulfilling that mandate would seem to be impossible if the department is precluded from considering any and all of the factors listed in the ban on discrimination. What's more, the idea smacks of experimentation because the social-science research on the impact of placement of children in households other than those of married husbands and wives - fathers and mothers - is, at the very least, not beyond reasonable dispute.

LB 385 was not designated as a priority bill and after a rather chaotic hearing in front of the Judiciary Committee, is held by the committee. As a matter of policy, the idea at the core of LB 385 ought to end there.

Jim Cunningham is executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, with headquarters in Lincoln. Contact him at jrcncc@neb.rr.com.

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