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August 22nd, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Eleven months ago, Nebraska foster parent Jenae VanEvery and her husband received a call to pick up two sisters, ages 2 and 3, who needed temporary care.

When VanEvery and her husband arrived to pick up the children, they were sleeping in a back room – still wearing the urine- and-feces-covered clothing they had on when police took them the day before.

“When we walked in, the 3-year-old woke up and jumped into my arms. I was taken aback by the strong aroma coming from her. It made my eyes water, and it was hard to breathe,” VanEvery said. “When we arrived home, we took them straight to the bathroom. The 3-year-old had a cable-knit sweater … that … had rubbed her shoulder blades raw because it had become so saturated in urine and feces that it dried incredibly stiff and rough.

“Her shoes were covered in feces — inside and out,” VanEvery said. “My husband took the clothes straight to the clothes washer, and I started giving them a bath. I had to change the water twice.”

A terrible case of parental neglect, right?  Wrong.  The little kids weren’t in their parents’ home; they were already wards of the state in the “care” of a non-profit organization called KVC with which the state had contracted to take over child welfare cases from state agencies.  Read about it here (Center for Public Integrity, 8/20/12).

Those little girls were just two examples of the unmitigated disaster that was Nebraska’s experiment in privatizing child protective services.  It didn’t take long for state officials to figure out that shifting the responsibility for Nebraska’s abused and neglected children from public to private interests wasn’t the right thing to do.  The experiment started in 2009 and is now officially dead, with those responsibilities back in state hands.

In fact, the whole thing was such a dismal failure that state lawmakers passed a sweeping package of bills earlier this year aimed at fixing the system.

In November, 2009, the state let contracts to five private providers.

The contracts began in November 2009. And before six months were out, one contractor was bankrupt and another ended its contract. Both blamed inadequate reimbursement from the state. Shortly after that, a third company lost its contract because of financial and management problems, which forced HHS to make unplanned infusions of money to keep things going.

An analysis by the Legislative Fiscal Office later showed that the state overspent the amount budgeted for child welfare services by $50 million during the two-year budget period – with all the money going into the private contracts.

For a small state like Nebraska, $50 million is an enormous sum, particularly to fix a problem whose “solution” was supposed to save the state money.

Funny how that works.  It turns out the problem is less with who employs the caseworkers than it is with other things – like how many caseworkers deal with how many cases, how you train them, how much you pay them and how they’re supervised.  Speaking of which, prior to privatization, state caseworkers had too many cases, too little training, too little supervision and too little pay.  Caseworkers for the private contractors had too many cases, too little training, too little supervision and too little pay.  So, to no one’s surprise, the abused and neglected children of  Nebraska fared no better after privatization than before and maybe worse.

Betty Nisly, who has been a foster parent on and off since 1980, told lawmakers that KVC “appears overwhelmed with case overload and poor management.

“Contact with KVC case managers is close to nil. Except for court hearings, there is no contact,” she said. “They do not answer their phones. Their messages are overflowed, so they can’t accept a message on their phone, and foster care parents are left dangling in midair.”

Palmer shared a Facebook post from one of her former foster children, a 15-year-old girl: “Just moved into a new foster home, and I’m scared. Don’t know what to do. Give me some advice.”

Another post said: “I’m lost. I don’t know who to turn to … I was just getting comfortable in my foster home when they took me out of it. It seems like nothing is going to be able to go right, and I’m just going to move from place to place until I turn 18.”

And that highlights yet another terrible problem with foster care in the state – permanency, or the lack thereof.  If a child needs to be in foster care, the idea is to find a permanent family for him/her.  Moving from foster family to foster family is a prescription for emotional and psychological disaster for a child at the very least.  But in Nebraska, permanency is an elusive goal regardless of who is running the show.  It seems that, when caseworkers are poorly paid, there’s a high turnover of them, resulting in children having multiple caseworkers throughout their years in foster care.  And when children have more than one caseworker, they tend to get shifted around a lot.

[State Senator Kathy] Campbell cited statistics that showed how permanency substantially drops with each case manager that a child has. In one study, children with one case manager achieve permanency in 74.5 percent of the cases. However, for children with two or more case managers, it drops to 17.5 percent, and for children who have six or more caseworkers, the rate of permanency is 0.1 percent.

The Nebraska Foster Care Review Board said that in the first six months of 2011, 21 percent of the children in the state’s care had four or more case managers. In a survey of biological parents, 60 percent reported they had had between two and four caseworkers, and 9 percent said they had between five and 10 caseworkers.

But for all the hand wringing, for all the dramatic moves toward and away from privatization, it still falls to Richard Wexler to describe the problem and prescribe the cure.  Wexler is the Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform and, for my money, the single most reasonable voice in the nation on the subject of the foster care system.

Wexler blasted Nebraska for removing children from their homes at more than twice the national rate: 7.5 per 1,000 children in 2010, compared to the national average of 3.4 removals. Wexler said that lawmakers and others should have been addressing that issue before debating whether the state should continue using private contractors for its child welfare system.

Wexler said children do better with their own families than in foster care. But instead of helping families deal with the issues of poverty and substandard living conditions, he said Nebraska was using a “take the child and run mentality.”

Of all the children in foster care in Nebraska in 2010, 19 percent were there because of allegations of physical abuse—from excessive corporal punishment to torture, Wexler said. Seven percent were in care because of sexual abuse.

But 58 percent were in care because of what was categorized as “neglect.”

“What is “neglect?” Wexler asked. “In Nebraska, it‘s the failure of the parent to provide for the basic needs or provide a safe and sanitary living environment for the child. A definition that broad can include some extremely serious maltreatment — such as, say, deliberately starving a child, or locking him in a closet all day.

“But it also is a perfect definition of poverty,” Wexler said. “And the confusion of poverty with neglect is the single biggest problem in American child welfare.”

“Either Nebraska is a cesspool of depravity, with more than triple the child abuse of the nation as a whole, or Nebraska is tearing apart a whole lot of families needlessly,” Wexler said.

If the state wants to save money and deliver better services to children in need, one way would be to cut its caseloads in half, that is, down to what the rest of the country averages.  That would mean teaching caseworkers the difference between neglect and poverty.  It would also mean keeping children in parental care where possible, and most importantly, it would mean providing services to parents to teach them how to better care for their children.  Often, that can be something as simple as educating parents of special needs children where to get help for their unique situations.  Often it just means providing parenting classes.  After all, we treat parenthood like it’s something that should just come naturally to any adult with a child.  In many cases it doesn’t, but overwhelmingly, parents still want to care for their children well.  Some could benefit from a little assistance.

There’s a bigger picture, though – single parent families.  For decades now, we as a culture, through our various institutions, have promoted single-parent families.  From our laws and courts, to our popular culture on up to the President of the United States, we rarely miss an opportunity to laud single parents, mostly mothers.  And, while most single parents of whichever sex do their best for children, their best is usually not as good as that of two parents.  The point is simple – more two-parent families would mean fewer abused and neglected children.  Fewer children in need would mean fewer foster parents, fewer caseworkers, fewer supervisors, and fewer colossal screw-ups like Nebraska’s recent experiment in privatizing child protection.

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