Nebraska lawmakers heard expert testimony last week about the status of child welfare services in the Omaha area, and the overall consensus was reassuring about recent progress.
Perhaps the most important testimony, however, didn’t come from a policy expert or top administrator. It came from a veteran foster care parent, Lawrence Kelley.
He spoke about the 10 years of experience he and his wife have had in caring for more than 100 foster children. His aim was to remind the lawmakers about the high stakes involved for these vulnerable boys and girls — a total of some 2,500 in the Omaha area on any given day.
It’s important, Kelley said, to look beyond the statistics and see the human stakes involved. Foster parents understand that.
“We don’t see cases,” he said. “We see faces.”
When boys and girls come into the foster care system, he said, “they’ve lost everything.” Nebraska has a responsibility to provide them with as stable a system as possible. Otherwise, the children fall into desperation.
“Why is it that everybody gives up on us?” Kelley said, citing a question asked by children who are handed from one social worker to another.
Like many other witnesses, Kelley spoke in favor of allowing a coalition of local nonprofits, the Nebraska Families Collaborative (NFC), to continue to provide foster care services in the Omaha area. The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee received statements expressing support for NFC from nonprofit organizations, the Douglas County Attorney’s Office, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert and the Omaha City Council.
At issue was Legislative Bill 660 by Sen. Bob Krist to allow NFC’s services to continue for the time being. Under the proposal, an outside group would complete an evaluation of NFC’s services by year’s end, then Nebraska’s next governor and the Legislature in 2015 could make a long-term decision on foster care in the Omaha area.
NFC currently provides those services in the Omaha area (about 40 percent of total foster care cases in Nebraska), while the state Department of Health and Human Services serves foster children in all other parts of the state, following the state’s failure at wider privatization efforts.
Lawmakers were told that challenges remain for NFC and the rest of Nebraska’s child welfare system but that NFC has been making significant progress. The group has been handling all foster care cases in the Omaha area since March 2012.
“Across the board, NFC’s outcomes are impressive, both historically and in reference to the rest of the state,” said Jim Blue, president and CEO of Cedars, which runs emergency shelters in Lincoln. “Their reputation is one of integrity.”
Omaha City Councilwoman Aimee Melton, a lawyer who works extensively with the juvenile court system, testified and said “services have improved drastically” in the past several years. NFC case workers are good about returning calls and demonstrate commitment, she said.
Nicole Brundo Goaley, head of the juvenile division of the Douglas County Attorney’s Office, voiced support for Krist’s bill and said the key needs at present are “stability and continuity.”
That is exactly right. Which is why lawmakers would be wise to allow NFC to continue for now, with a final decision to be made next year.
As Kelley, the foster parent, told the committee: “Stability is the greatest gift we can offer a child while they are in care.” Wise words.