Buried in Saturday’s News

October 18, 2010 at 1:05pm By: Mr. Wilson Posted in The Lincolnite Blog

While most of Nebraska was distracted by a football game, HHS dropped a bombshell on Friday when it announced that the role of 450 children and family service specialists would be handed over to the state’s private foster care contractors by January 1. This is shocking, and potentially horrific, news.

I’ll start by saying that I’m not opposed to privatizing many or even most foster care services. The general concept is sound. Furthermore, one of the things holding back the privatization movement in Nebraska is that the contracting agencies have little power but many responsibilities. The result so far has been a tremendous amount of task duplication, and a lot of waiting around for HHS to act while the agencies (and everybody on down the line) have to sit and twiddle their thumbs. From that perspective, decreasing redundancy and increasing contractor power (with sufficient oversight, of course) seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

Not so fast. The reality is that Nebraska is ill-prepared to make such a substantial move. HHS is still trying to figure out how to manage private contractors rather than doing the job itself. The contractors are still trying to figure out what their job is. Nobody has enough resources to do what they need to do. There’s no leadership, no communication, and extreme confusion. I don’t use this language very often here on Lincolnite, but if anything needs to be described as a gigantic clusterfuck, this is it.

The cynic in me wonders if the private contractors are deliberately being set up to fail. All but two already have. And yet the State wants to accelerate the rate of change? HHS will take its share of abuse for any negative outcomes, but the contractors will really get thrashed. The employees with whom I have interacted at KVC are good folks, yet they are drowning because the institution for which they work can’t keep up with the demands placed upon it. That’s not because [insert private contractor of your choice] “sucks” or because they’re corrupt, as many anonymous online commenters would like to believe. It’s because they’re taking on too much, too fast. Shame on them for not telling the State no, and shame on the State for failing to recognize chaos when it’s so apparent.

If I’m really being honest, I have to acknowledge that many cases won’t be drastically affected by this change no matter how ill-advised it may be. Simple, run-of-the-mill cases are easy enough for any reasonably-prepared organization to handle. But anybody with any experience with foster care knows that “simple” describes only a fraction of cases. Take the case of the two boys currently living with us. I obviously can’t give details, but this change will be positively catastrophic for our case. The case will lose a tremendous amount of institutional memory and critical, irreplaceable personal relationships. Our situation is not unique.

The Unicameral must step in. Governor Dave Heineman has shown zero leadership on foster care. (He hasn’t shown much leadership elsewhere either, but I digress.) HHS is making too many critical decisions too quickly and with too little input from stakeholders and the public. The best possible realistic scenario is that we get lucky and after some months of confusion, uncertainty, and stress we find that nobody has been screwed over too badly, aside from delays in many cases due to the changeover. In reality, we should expect to do real harm to children, families, and foster parents. Nothing in Nebraska’s history with foster care suggests anything different is likely.

I leave open the possibility that this will all go better than expected. History and common sense suggest otherwise.

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The Comments

Jack Mitchell October 18, 2010 at 7:03pm

It’s too bad that there aren’t enough Nebraskans who care about this issue enough to really put the pressure on state leadership as to why these decisions have been made in the way they were.  We’re a state where being ‘tough’ on illegal immigration and anti-tax gets you a vote among a huge percentage of the people, and as long as you hold true to a few politically popular stances, it doesn’t particularly matter what you do with behind-the-scenes stuff like foster care.

Laurie October 19, 2010 at 1:39am

It seems to me that the problem is so big that most people just don’t understand it. If you aren’t in a profession where you work with children and don’t see the problems up close and personal, the problems seem remote. It also seems to me that this is an issue that would be ripe for the media - maybe we need to have our noses rubbed in story after story until we really see the size of the problem and understand the ramifications of it.

Mr. T October 19, 2010 at 1:14pm

I agree with both the statements above. Its sad but true. Unless you happen to be either someone who is involved in the foster care system itself, you’re - sadly - not likely to care about, these types of systemic issues.

The news is out there (LJS has been doing nice job with that), but its not a sexy topic. Kudos also to Mr. Wilson for highlighting these stories when they come out.

JackM October 19, 2010 at 2:33pm

Yeah, it’s hard to get any traction.  JoAnn Young has done a good job of covering this for the LJS, as Mr. T says, but it doesn’t result in much discussion, much less passion, from most. 

FWIW, we had Todd Reckling from HHS on the show a couple weeks ago and pushed him on the state’s strategy right now.  See if he convinced you:

http://www.klin.com/play_window.php?audioType=Episode&audioId=4944090

zerodtkjoe October 20, 2010 at 9:03am

Thanks for the info

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