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Juvenile Justice

Voices for Children Testimony on LB 158

Voices for Children policy coordinator Juliet Summers testified in support of LB 158, a bill to change provisions relating to appointment of counsel to juveniles. Read her full testimony below or go here for a printable version of Voices for Children’s testimony on LB 158.

 

To: Chairwoman Ebke and Members of the Judiciary Committee

From: Juliet Summers, Policy Coordinator

Re: LB 158, a bill regarding the right to counsel in juvenile court

Every child in Nebraska deserves equal protection under the law.  Voices for Children in Nebraska supports LB 158, because it will ensure youth across our entire state have meaningful access to one of the great protections of the American justice system: the Constitutional right to counsel. This protection is especially important for children, who may by their age fail to fully understand the grave nature of their actions, the complicated legal proceedings against them, and the potentially life-altering outcomes.

Why do lawyers matter in juvenile court? Juvenile court may sometimes be perceived as “kiddie court” or diversionary in nature, but in fact, in every single case, juvenile court judges have a wider range of options available to them than criminal court judges. Though this means a lower reliance on the traditionally punitive response of incarceration, it also means that a charge as “small” as minor in possession can, in the juvenile court, open the door to confinement, removal from the family home to a group home program, being placed on probation for an indefinite number of years, or even commitment to the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers.  In that regard, there is no “small” charge in the juvenile court.

Furthermore, after the trial phase, juvenile courts are relatively unbound by the rules of evidence and have wide latitude to make decisions on treatment, placement, and even incarceration on hearsay evidence.  A psychiatrist can make a written recommendation for psychotropic medication or for the youth to be placed in inpatient care and the court may order it.  A probation officer may tell the judge that the youth needs to be picked up by sheriffs and confined in a jail-like detention facility until further notice for safety, without a sentence setting a determinate length of that incarceration.

Both of those examples are permissible if the court finds they are in the best interests of that youth … but would you want to face such a proceeding without a lawyer to assist you and protect your rights?  Would you allow your own child to do so?

What does the data show? Unfortunately, the data makes clear that youth across our state are not getting access to this important constitutional protection at equal rates. The map I have provided to you breaks down the rate of juvenile access to counsel by county.[1] Because each and every juvenile court case exposes a youth to the risk of incarceration, the youth in every case is already entitled by the U.S. Constitution to an appointed attorney and the judge has to ask when he or she wants one. However, how and when the judge asks that question, and whether the right is adequately explained to the youth or pressure applied not to take it, can all affect the rate at which children actually take up this right.  As you can see from the map, this is not an urban versus rural issue. Counties right next door to each other – perhaps, the counties within your own legislative district – can vary as much as 100%.  LB 158 would ensure that every youth coming to juvenile court receives the constitutional protection to which she is entitled, regardless of where she happens to be charged.

What about the cost? Last year, there was debate on the floor about the potential costs to counties posed by LB 894. We recognize that this is a special concern this year. Lawyers do cost money, and it is a special and remarkable feature of the American Constitution that we have chosen as a society to bear that cost in order to protect our citizens from possible government overreach.

However, lawyers also have the potential to save money, by reducing expenses the county, state, and even family are already paying. When a defense attorney is able to consult immediately with her client and the county attorney and arranges a plea agreement for the first court appearance, the county and state are saved the expense of bringing judge, county attorney, bailiff and court reporter back for a second or even third hearing. The parents are saved the expense of missing work for a second hearing. If the judge detains the youth pending trial, the county bears the cost of that confinement at staggering expense. I attached an infographic comparing the cost of an average hourly appointment rate for lawyers in Nebraska with the cost of detention; if the lawyer can get the youth’s case moved even one day faster, the county saves $45.  If the lawyer gets the case in just one week sooner, the county saves $1,407.[2]

Every teenager facing a proceeding in which the government can take their liberty, remove them from home and family, put them on medication, or commit them to a psychiatric institution, boot camp, or YRTC  should have a lawyer to ensure their rights are protected and they understand what is happening and why.  LB 158 would close a gap in the way our state protects youth, and I urge you to support it. Voices for Children in Nebraska would like to thank Senator Pansing Brooks for bringing this important legislation, and the Committee for your time and consideration.

[1] This is 2015 data taken from the Administrative Office of the Courts Annual Statistical Report, published in February 2016.  At this time, data updated for 2016 is not yet available.

[2] This calculation is based on the average per diem cost of detention in 2015, according to data from Nebraska’s five detention facilities. To get the average cost of an attorney, we made an informal survey of attorneys taking court appointments, and received responses from 28 different Nebraska counties, both urban and rural.

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Support for LB 6 and LB 207

Voices for Children sent a letter of support to the Executive Board regarding LB 6 and LB 207, both concerning the Office of Inspector General of Nebraska Child Welfare. LB 6 would provide for release of a summarized report by the Office of Inspector General of Nebraska Child Welfare. LB 207 would change provisions relating to powers and duties of the Office of Inspector General of Nebraska Child Welfare.

You can read our entire letter of support below.

For a printable version of our letter of support, click here.

 

To: Chairman Watermeier and the Executive Board

From: Juliet Summers, Policy Coordinator for Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice

RE: LB 6—Provide for release of a summarized report by the Office of Inspector General of Nebraska Child Welfare and LB 207—Change provisions relating to powers and duties of the Office of Inspector General of Nebraska Child Welfare

All children deserve the best opportunities to become healthy and productive adults, and we must ensure that our state child protective system is working to enhance, rather than undercut, those opportunities. To that end, Voices for Children in Nebraska supports LB 6 and LB 207, both of which would allow the Office of the Inspector General of Child Welfare to continue to protect vulnerable children and improve our system response for all youth in our state’s care.

The OIG collects vital information on child well-being and must be able to use this information to identify and correct systemic and structural issues. If the OIG is not permitted to release important findings more than once a year in an Annual Report, some issues of concern may not be highlighted and important concerns may not be addressed in a timely manner. LB 6 would allow the Inspector General to address critical issues as they arise, and the public to become aware of proposed solutions sooner, better protecting Nebraska’s children.

An office that investigates when things have gone wrong, but keeps those investigations confidential and uses its power only to make recommendations to improve system response is a special tool. With this in mind, LB 207 would expand the OIG’s power to make recommendations by ensuring that the OIG receives more complete information.

The Office of the Inspector General of Child Welfare serves an important and independent role in ensuring that all children involved with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems in our state are kept safe and given the proper supports and services that they need to succeed. Voices for Children supports these bills in the understanding that they will further the important work of the Inspector General.

We thank Senator Krist for his ongoing support for the Office of Inspector General of Child Welfare and this Committee for your time and consideration.

 

Sincerely,

Juliet Summers

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Voices for Children testimony on LB 11

Today, Voices for Children Policy Coordinator Juliet Summers testified on LB 11, a bill to change provisions related to transfer of juvenile cases.

 

You can read our entire LB 11 testimony below.

For a printable version of our testimony, click here.

 

To: Members of the Judiciary Committee

From: Juliet Summers, Policy Coordinator for Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice

Re: LB 11 – Change provisions related to transfer of juvenile cases

Our state policies should ensure that youth caught up in the justice system are given the best opportunity to turn their lives around and become productive adults. In recent years, Nebraska has been a forerunner of national juvenile justice reform, and we are starting to see the positive results of policies based on research into what works.  Voices for Children in Nebraska supports LB 11, because it clarifies previous legislative intent on one such reform and will ensure youth are afforded a meaningful opportunity at rehabilitation in the juvenile courts.

In 2014, the Legislature passed LB 464 into law, requiring that nearly all cases in which minors age 17 and younger are charged begin in juvenile, rather than adult criminal court.  This bill was based on years of research showing that charging minors as adults does not reduce violence or other antisocial behavior, but is more likely to encourage it.  Exposing minors to criminal charges and incarceration leads to increased recidivism, increased risk of prison rape, suicide, and other dangers, and infringes on parental rights and responsibilities to hold youth accountable and support their development into law-abiding citizens.[1] Transcripts of legislative debate from 2013 to 2014 show a widespread commitment by senators to ensuring most teenage offenders have access to the juvenile court in order to maximize youth rehabilitation.  County attorneys still have the discretion to file the highest-grade, dangerous felonies in criminal court. They may also file a motion requesting a judge to transfer a case out of the juvenile court and into the criminal court.

The data show that this approach is working.  In 2014, there were 1,972 minors charged as adults in the county or district courts.  In 2015, that number dropped to 356.[2]  Over the same period, juvenile crime has not risen.  There are fewer youth today in our adult prison facilities, fewer being placed on juvenile probation, fewer confined in our juvenile detention centers, and fewer committed to our Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers.[3]  LB 464, and the 103rd Legislature’s commitment to responding thoughtfully to teenage crime, is paying off.

So why this bill?  Voices for Children supports LB 11, because it does not change anything substantively about Nebraska’s jurisdictional scheme that LB 464 set out, which is working so effectively.  Rather, it clarifies the timing at which an appeal can be taken, when a county attorney does file a motion to transfer a case out of juvenile court and into criminal court.

The Supreme Court recently held, interpreting LB 464, that when a juvenile court judge transfers a case to criminal court, the juvenile may not appeal that order until after the criminal process is complete.  This could be months or over a year later.  Suppose the minor is sixteen and a half when the case is transferred.  He goes through trial and sentencing before the county or district court judge, a process which takes several months.  He is now a couple months over seventeen, and files his appellate paperwork questioning the decision of the juvenile court judge to transfer his case.  An appeal in Nebraska also takes several months from the start of filing to the return of a decision. If the Court of Appeals holds that his case was improperly transferred – that the juvenile court judge erred – he has lost nearly a year and a half, time which could have been spent receiving therapeutic and supervisory services through juvenile probation. He is now eighteen or a little older, with less than a year left before he ages out of juvenile court jurisdiction: very little time to accomplish rehabilitative goals.

LB 11 would permit him to appeal the transfer decision immediately, and to continue to receive temporary rehabilitative orders from the juvenile court while the case is pending appeal.  Those same months waiting for the decision on appeal would not be lost; instead, they could be spent receiving substance abuse treatment, making restitution to a victim or in the community, working through family issues, and pursuing education.

Thank you to Senator Krist for his commitment to getting our system right for youth, families, and communities, and to this Committee for your time and thoughtful consideration.

 

[1] Centers for Disease Control: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.  Effects on Violence of Laws and Policies Facilitating the Transfer of Youth from the Juvenile to the Adult Justice System. Vol. 56: No. RR-9, Nov. 30, 2007.  Available online: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/rr/rr5609.pdf

[2] Kids Count 2016. Available online at: http://kidscountnebraska.com/juvenile-justice/

[3] Id.

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Voices for Children Testimony on LB 8

Today, Policy Coordinator Juliet Summers testified on LB 8, legislation that would provide for graduated response incentives and sanctions relating to juvenile probation.

You can read our entire LB 8 testimony below.

For a printable version of our testimony, click here.

 

To: Members of the Judiciary Committee

From: Juliet Summers, Policy Coordinator for Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice

Re: LB 8 – Provide for graduated response incentives and sanctions relating to juvenile probation

We all benefit when youth are held accountable for their actions in developmentally appropriate ways that promote community safety and allow them to grow into responsible citizens.  In recent years, Nebraska has begun the process of reforming our juvenile justice system to produce better outcomes for youth, families, and communities.  Voices for Children in Nebraska supports LB 8 as an important next step in this process, tailoring our juvenile administrative sanctions statute to better respond to the unique rehabilitative needs that youth on probation present.

Teachers have long understood that to maximize learning outcomes and compliance in the classroom, youth respond best when they perceive sanctions as fair, and when teachers utilize a ratio of at least four positive incentives and interactions to one negative punishment or sanction.[1]  When it comes to adolescent misbehavior, research shows what every parent of a teenager knows: the effectiveness of any punishment is more related to its timeliness and certainty than to its severity.[2]  LB 8 would apply these common sense principles to juvenile probation, by emphasizing the importance of positive reinforcement when youth are doing well on probation, and by increasing probation officers’ ability to swiftly and fairly respond to minor violations of the probation contract.

To be clear, we are not talking about youth who pick up new charges or engage in truly dangerous or new lawbreaking behavior while on probation. In such cases, the probation officer is still empowered to request the youth be detained and the county attorney file a motion to revoke the probation order.  LB 8 reflects a balanced approach between permitting flexibility for probation officers to respond to minor misbehaviors, and requiring judicial oversight and due process for youth accused of being in major violation of their court orders.  In fact, by empowering officers to respond in a swift, fair, transparent and certain way to minor misbehavior, adolescent development research suggests that this new structure will head off worse behaviors.

Perhaps most importantly, LB 8 also makes clear that incarceration in secure juvenile detention facilities is not an appropriate response to minor violations of probation that would otherwise not rise to the level risk or dangerousness our laws require to confine youth.  There’s a reason our Constitution and laws demand a showing of immediate risk of harm to self, community, or risk of flight before a youth can be incarcerated; besides being a violation of individual liberty, the incarceration of low risk juvenile offenders is an extremely costly and ineffective response.[3] Youth who continue to act out in minor ways once placed on probation may frustrate us, but the way our system responds should always be calculated to best change that behavior for the better rather than for the worse.  The number of youth confined in our juvenile detention facilities has fallen in recent years from 3,930 in 2011 to 2,597 in 2015 — without a corresponding rise in juvenile crime.[4]  LB 8 is the right next step to keeping more kids out of jail who don’t belong there.

Thank you to Senator Krist for being a champion on behalf of Nebraska’s youth, and to this Committee for your time and consideration.  I’d be happy to answer any questions.

 

[1] Conroy, M. A., Sutherland, K. S., Snyder, A., Al-Hendawi, M. & Vo, A.  (2009). Creating a positive classroom atmosphere:  Teachers’ use of effective praise and feedback.  Beyond Behavior, 18(2), pp. 18-26.

[2] American Probation & Parole Association, National Center for State Courts, Pew Charitable Trust. Effective Responses to Offender Behavior: Lessons Learned for Probation and Parole Supervision.  Available online at:  https://www.appa-net.org/eWeb/docs/APPA/pubs/EROBLLPPS-Report.pdf

[3] Pew. www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2015/04/reexamining-juvenile-incarceration

[4] KidsCount 2016.  Available online at: http://kidscountnebraska.com/juvenile-justice/

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Judicial Branch Advocacy

In all of our policy work, Voices for Children seeks to break down barriers to opportunity for children. Most of the time, that involves public education, community engagement, and administrative and legislative advocacy: working with the public to highlight and understand issues facing kids and families, and working with the Nebraska Unicameral and state executive agencies to shift policies to better align with what the research tells us works for kids.

This year, we expanded our scope of advocacy work into the realm of the judiciary, jointly filing with Nebraska Youth Advocates as amicus curiae in a case before the Nebraska Supreme Court. An amicus brief is a type of appellate filing where external interested parties or experts can offer the Court important information to consider as they interpret the law. The case was called In Re Tyrone K, and the issue presented to the Court related to Nebraska’s relatively new statutory scheme raising the age of juvenile court jurisdiction and resetting the way kids’ cases can be transferred between juvenile and criminal court (LB 464, passed in 2014). We asked the Court for permission to weigh in because the passage of LB 464 was a great legislative victory for kids, and we wanted to ensure that its protections were preserved as intended. A PDF of our filing can be found here.

The Supreme Court issued its opinion on Friday, and unfortunately, held that without explicit statutory language saying so, a juvenile can’t immediately appeal from an order transferring the juvenile case to the adult criminal court. Instead, this means that if a juvenile judge decides to transfer the case– even wrongly– the youth will have to face criminal charges, trial, and sentencing before she is able to appeal the order and get her case returned to juvenile court. This will mean lost months or even years of time, likely incarcerated, that could be spent in rehabilitative services aimed at reducing her likelihood of recidivism and improving her ability to become a contributing member of adult society.

This decision is a disheartening blow, but we will continue to work and advocate in all three branches of government for sensible laws and policies that set all Nebraska’s kids up for success.

 

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Cutting our Future: Juvenile Justice

Every two years, state agencies in Nebraska publish a biennial budget proposal outlining potential priorities for funding and budget cuts. This year, in light of projected reductions in state revenue receipts, Governor Ricketts has asked state agencies to identify general fund budget cuts amounting to 8 percent in laying out a 2017-2019 budget. Our state investment in systems that support children have a lasting and widespread effect on our future and our community. Because of this, Voices for Children in Nebraska reviews budget proposals issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to explore the impact that cuts will have on the well-being of children in our state.

The proposed changes in funding for programs that have been incredibly beneficial to children is concerning to us at Voices for Children. In this post in our series on the DHHS proposed budget, we will examine the consequences of budget alterations on Nebraska’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers.

In contrast to most budget modifications proposed, DHHS is requesting increased rather than decreased funding for Nebraska’s Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers (YRTCs).  The increased funding would go toward hiring more staff, which would allow the facilities to come into compliance with federal regulations concerning staff to youth ratios and, more importantly, provide better and more individualized care for youth.

While Voices supports this effort to better serve youth in the YRTCs, we remain concerned that Nebraska’s YRTCs are not the right model to effectively treat youth in need of intensive intervention. We would recommend that in conjunction with any increase in funding to YRTCs, the question must be asked whether they are adequately serving the youth placed there — or could, given the funding increase. Currently, the only tracked measure of success for the YRTCs is the percent of youth returning to the facility within the next 12 months. High rates of return indicate that Nebraska’s YRTCs are not successful in the long-term, as many youth return to the facility within a year. Conversely, other measures of the facilities’ success or failure, such as successful completion of probation or information on further legal trouble, are not currently tracked, making it difficult to fully determine whether the YRTCs are succeeding in their mission to rehabilitate Nebraska youth. Do youth leave the YRTCs better prepared to complete high school and pursue higher education?  Do they refrain from committing new crimes and avoid further incarceration after YRTC?  We just don’t know, and these are $18 million dollar questions.

We maintain that national research and best practices suggest Nebraska’s youth would be better served with a statewide network of small, regional facilities with lower staff/child ratios, where youth could receive treatment closer to home and family. Investing our state’s money in a regional model instead of funding two large-scale facilities would allow youth to remain in their communities, making the transition in and out of treatment smoother. That said, if reinvesting our state funding in a regional system is not feasible this year, we do support increasing staff to better serve youth in the current YRTCs, but believe the investment should come with a requirement that both facilities implement accountability measures and regular evaluations to track both short- and long-term outcomes for youth served. This could be accomplished, for instance, by partnering with one of Nebraska’s universities to implement an evaluation on the evidence-based-practice spectrum: identifying what the facility’s goals and purpose are, what steps are being taken to meet those goals, what markers of success or failure can and should be tracked, and monitoring those markers to ascertain whether goals are being met.

When the legislature begins to make its final budget cuts, lawmakers need to keep children’s interests in mind. When it comes to juvenile justice, up front investment in proven treatment methods saves significant taxpayer dollars downstream through reduced recidivism. As long as the YRTCs remain part of our state’s spectrum of care for youth, we need to ensure that they are structured and funded to provide the best and most effective treatment programming. If our facilities are not providing effective treatment, we need to alter existing programs or create new ones to provide our youth with the best possible future.

The budget is a complicated document and we’re sure to miss issues that are important to some of our readers.  If you’re concerned about a particular proposed cut in the budget, let us know in the comments below.  We may not cover everything on our blog, but we still want to know what challenges you see in the upcoming budget. If you are concerned about any of the cuts outlined above we urge you to contact your senator about your concerns before the legislature begins to decide on the final budget in January.

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Voices for Children Testimony on LR 523

Yesterday, Voices for Children Policy Coordinator Juliet Summers testified on LR 523, an interim study on the gaps in services, legal protections, and access to public benefits available to youth who are eighteen but have not reached the age of majority. Voice for Children testified on the need to address this gap in services, the effect this gap has on a healthy transition into adulthood, and provided possible solutions to expand care for Nebraska’s youth. You can read our entire LR 523 Testimony below.

 

To: Members of the Health & Human Services and Judiciary Committees

From: Juliet Summers, Policy Coordinator at Voices for Children in Nebraska

Re: LR 523 – Examining Nebraska law regarding the protection of children who have reached 18 years of age but not reached the age of majority

All children, even older ones, deserve care and consideration in our state protective codes.  As you’ve heard today, Nebraska’s age of majority is 19, but we have a piecemeal response when it comes to how 18-year-olds should be treated. You’ve heard from Faith, whose compelling story outlines the lack of protective response available when an 18-year-old is seeking to escape from an abusive home life.  You should have before you a letter from Dr. Anne Hobbs, a foster parent who witnessed first-hand last year the discrepancy in system response solely on the basis of age between two brothers she fostered. Judge Reagan outlined the complexity of Nebraska’s case law regarding emancipation, and the lack of any direct and clear legal course for a minor to take in order to formally seek emancipation from his or her parents.

My role today is to describe for you two possible avenues of solution for the gap that our laws and regulations have created.  I have submitted a handout with a copy of my testimony for you highlighting these avenues.

  1. Raise the age of juvenile court jurisdiction and child protective service response to match our age of majority.

Nebraska was ahead of the curve in setting a higher age of majority; as brain science has evolved, so too has our understanding of just how long it takes for a young person to grow into true emotional and psychological adulthood. However, by raising the age of legal majority without simultaneously extending original juvenile court jurisdiction to match, we have left a gap for 18-year-olds who are nearing legal adulthood, but may nonetheless require protection and assistance. The Nebraska Juvenile Code, §43-245(11), defines “juvenile” for the purposes of initiating jurisdiction as a “person under 18 years of age” and DHHS regulation Ch. 1-006.01 states that “for intake purposes, child welfare accepts referrals on children from birth through age 17.”

What makes this gap particularly perplexing is that current statute permits ongoing cases to continue through our age of majority. For instance, if a 14-year-old is identified as a child in need of protection, Child Protective Services (CPS) may accept the intake and the case proceed to court. If permanency hasn’t been achieved for the child by age 18, the case can stay open, and the 18 year old may remain a state ward through the age of 19, at which time he or she is eligible to enter extended foster care through the Bridge to Independence program.

The Nebraska legislature could act to close this gap by permitting juvenile court jurisdiction to be initiated through the age of 19, and requiring DHHS to update intake regulations accordingly. In doing so, the state would be granting authority to CPS and the courts to intervene, even in a time-limited fashion, when an 18 year old is at risk due to an abusive or neglectful home-life. Such a filing would also provide the youth an opportunity for former ward supports after age 19, or even to enter extended foster care through the Bridge to Independence program.

  1. Create a statutory avenue for minors of a certain age to initiate proceedings for emancipation.

A complementary approach could also include offering a statutory avenue for minors to seek emancipation through filing in probate or district court.  As Judge Reagan testified, there may be an obscure common-law work around that would permit the creative lawyer to file suit as a “next friend” of an 18-year-old seeking emancipation. However, without a clear statutory avenue permitting such a filing, lawyers may be chilled from doing so by fear of filing a frivolous suit, judges may refuse to hear such proceedings without clear guidance by the Legislature, and vulnerable youth may be least likely to understand what, if any, avenue they would have to request a formal finding.

Twenty-one states offer minors some relief in the ability to initiate proceedings for emancipation, usually setting a minimum age to do so. Some permit the court to appoint a guardian ad litem or investigator to provide evidence regarding the minor’s financial means and whether they have cut ties in such a way as to be considered truly independent. Nearly all the states that permit emancipation by court filing have set statutory requirements regarding financial and personal independence, findings that the court must make prior to ordering legal emancipation.

I should note that neither of these two solutions stands perfectly on its own.  Providing an avenue for suit for emancipation might help a legal-savvy young person with resources to prove financial independence to a court, but would not protect, for instance, an 18-year-old with a developmental disability whose guardian suddenly passed away. Conversely, closing the gap between our age of CPS/court intervention and our age of majority would allow for intakes to be made and placement to be secured between the ages of 18 and 19 in cases of abuse or neglect, but some minors might still be missed in investigation or passed over through county attorney discretion. Indeed, a resourceful young person like Faith, who by the time she turned 18 had already separated herself successfully from her abusive home-life and had her future well in hand, might be better served by the simplicity of legal independence than by anything state intervention could offer.  Each of these solutions offers a potential piece of the answer.

I’d like to thank both Committees for your time and consideration of this important issue, and particularly Senator Howard for her dedication to bringing this problem forward and seeking solutions.  I would be happy to answer any questions.

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Let’s Put Nebraska Kids First

At Voices for Children in Nebraska, we advocate for policies that help make our state the best place to be a kid. Guided by research, we seek to remove barriers to opportunity for all children by engaging the public and elected officials on the issues of child welfare, economic stability, health, and juvenile justice

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Regardless of the results of this election, child well-being remains a non-partisan issue. As our state’s greatest resource, children serve as a unifier across the political spectrum. The decisions our leaders make about them impact our collective future. Now that you have voted, we encourage you to reach out to your newly elected officials to find out how they will work to make children a priority. To find your current state senator, click here.

With this in mind, we present our Pro-Kid Policy Plan for the upcoming year. This plan represents our vision for a Nebraska where strong communities allow all children to lead healthy, secure, and fulfilling lives.

Pro-Kid Policy Plan

Voices for Children works to ensure that:

Child Welfare: Children grow up in safe, permanent, and loving homes. An effective child welfare system strengthens families and minimizes trauma through timely and appropriate action.

In October, we testified at an interim study on LR 513 about workforce issues within the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Next week, we will share information with the Legislature during a hearing on LR 523 about the gap in child protective response for 18 year olds, who have not yet reached Nebraska’s age of majority.

Economic Stability: Families are able to achieve financial security, and children’s basic needs are met. State economic policies support families in trying to build a better future and balance work and family life.

Last month, we collaborated with other community partners on, “The Cost of Being Poor” a panel discussion on small debt lawsuits in Nebraska, and how they disproportionately burden low-income Nebraskans.

On December 7, we invite you to join us for a film screening of The Ordinance, a film highlighting a community’s successful efforts to take on predatory lending practices. This industry often prevents families from achieving financial security. Register for free here.

Health: Children and families have access to affordable, quality physical and behavioral health care. Consistent and preventive health care gives children the best start to grow up to be healthy and productive adults.

We are working to ensure the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is re-authorized by Congress and that the over 15,000 Nebraska kids currently eligible for Medicaid or CHIP but not yet enrolled get access to care.

Juvenile Justice: Youth are held accountable for their actions in developmentally appropriate ways that promote community safety and allow them to grow into responsible citizens.

Last month, we testified on LR 514 an interim study to examine the availability of transition services for youth who will leave or have left the juvenile justice system while in an out-of-home placement.

With the Pro-Kid Policy at the core of all that we do, Voices for Children will continue researching and advocating to make Nebraska the best place for everyone to be a kid.

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Voices for Children Testimony on LR 514

This week, Voices for Children Policy Coordinator Juliet Summers testified on LR 514, an interim study to examine the availability of transition services for youth who will leave or have left the juvenile justice system while in an out-of-home placement.  Voices for Children testified on the need to ensure Nebraska youth can safely transition to a productive and healthy adulthood after system involvement.

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You can read our entire LR 514 Testimony below.

For a printable version of the testimony, click here.

To: Chairperson Campbell and Members of the Health & Human Services Committee

From: Juliet Summers, Policy Coordinator

Re: LR 514, a study examining transition services for youth exiting the juvenile justice system in out of home placement

For young people exiting our child welfare and juvenile justice systems on the cusp of adulthood, the sudden transition from structural supports and requirements to complete independence can be a difficult path to navigate safely.  Thankfully, Nebraska has an excellent extended foster care program to assist young adults leaving the foster care system without having achieved permanency in a family setting as they find their way into adulthood.  I am happy to be here today on behalf of Voices for Children, one of a coalition of child advocacy organizations that have come together through this interim study to examine how this program might be extended to young people aging out of our juvenile justice system, similarly alone in the world and without the support of family.

A brief background: when the Legislature passed LB 216 in 2013 creating the Bridge to Independence program, it required that the Children’s Commission examine and report on ways to extend the program to other populations in need of similar transitional supports. Last year, the Bridge to Independence Advisory Committee of the Children’s Commission formed a task force to examine this question and make recommendations. Focus groups were held with youth and adult stakeholders across the state, and the taskforce itself represented a broad set of state experts in extended foster care and/or the probation system. In short, what we learned through this process is there is broad consensus supporting a voluntary program of extended services for young people aging out of the juvenile justice system without a stable system of family supports.

The resulting recommendations were approved by the Children’s Commission and forwarded to the Legislature, the primary recommendation being to open up eligibility to our current Bridge to Independence program to young people aging out of the juvenile justice system who have no home to return to. This recommendation came out of the evidence that, though they may have come to the attention of our court system through a criminal act or misbehavior, there are youth lingering in placement on probation not because they themselves have failed to rehabilitate, but because they lack a home to return to and child welfare proceedings have not been initiated due to their age. The data show that there are probation youth leaving out-of-home placement not to return to family but to go into independent living. We heard from probation officers who literally had to drop off young people at homeless shelters on their 19th birthdays, because jurisdiction had ended and there was nowhere else to go.  Today, you will hear testimony to this effect from Jeanne Brandner, the Deputy Director of Juvenile Probation Administration, and from a young woman named Meshka Waya, who has experienced what it is like to transition out of our juvenile justice system.

Last session, Senator Bolz offered LB 866, the Transition to Adult Living Success Program Act as a step toward implementing this recommendation. This Committee voted it out, but without a priority it didn’t make it to the floor last year.  In some ways this has ultimately been of benefit, as this interim study has provided a forum and opportunity for detailed legal research and further collaborative discussion to take place.  A team of partners, including DHHS, Probation, Voices for Children, Nebraska Appleseed, and Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, and guided by national consultants Mainspring Consulting and the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative, has continued the work of the taskforce, crafting a proposal that captures the Children’s Commission recommendation, identifying the right eligibility parameters to extend transitional supports to the population who need it without being over- or under-inclusive, and enabling Nebraska to draw down federal funds to support expansion of our current program.

This proposal has essentially two criteria for juvenile justice eligibility for Bridge to Independence: a young person must be in a court-ordered out-of-home placement as they age out of probation on their 19th birthday, and prior to aging out, the court must hold a hearing and make a finding that such placement is necessary because returning to the home would be “contrary to the welfare” of the child.  Because the population we are trying to capture has not had a formal child welfare finding, we ran into sticky legal issues with how best to capture the Children’s Commission recommendation for “lacking a stable home to return to” without asking the court to make findings infringing on parental rights that are still intact. Ultimately, we believe that the “contrary to the welfare” language is a strong proxy, both because it mirrors the language required by the federal government to draw down Title IV-E federal foster care funding, and because setting a final hearing before age-out to make the finding will allow the court to make the ultimate determination that a young person needs the supportive services the Bridge to Independence program can offer. Kate Gaughen with Mainspring Consulting will testify following me regarding the fiscal analysis they have prepared based on this proposed eligibility criteria and data provided by Probation and DHHS.  The hope is that by providing a system of supports to young people who would otherwise be set adrift after system involvement, Nebraska can ensure their safe transition to a productive and healthy adulthood – benefitting our state as a whole.

With that, I’d like to thank this Committee for all your time and commitment to ensuring our systems serve and protect Nebraska’s vulnerable populations, and to thank Senator Bolz for her dedication to Nebraska’s young people and for sponsoring this interim study.  I’d be happy to answer any questions about our process or resulting recommendations.

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Voices for Children Testimony on LR 513

Yesterday, Voices for Children Policy Coordinator Juliet Summers testified on LR 513, which examines workforce issues within the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Voices for Children testified on the need to ensure that case managers and probation officers have an appropriate number of cases, provide more support for the child welfare workers, and increase state funding to achieve these goals. You can read our entire LR 513 Testimony below.

For a printable version of the testimony, click here.

Nebraska children coming into the care of the state through our child welfare and juvenile justice systems deserve a system structured and funded to promote a thoughtful yet timely response. Our case managers and probation officers are the front line of service to our state’s youth, and we depend upon them to use careful judgment and build strong relationships with children and families to promote the best outcomes. The caseload and responsibilities we demand, as well as the support, supervision and training we offer, to these dedicated public servants can make all the difference for Nebraska’s youth.
It hardly needs to be said that creating a stable, supported, highly qualified workforce is a complex issue. Computing appropriate caseload and workload is just one piece of the puzzle, and much more than a simple numerical equation. Other puzzle pieces include, but are not limited to:

Streamlining requirements placed on front line workers: In addition to the direct client work of meeting with families, making referrals and recommendations, and attending court hearings, case managers and probation officers in Nebraska may also report to LB 1184 teams, the Foster Care Review Office, or even the Office of the Inspector General or the Governor’s office. In efforts to better protect and support children in care, as a state we have continued to add reporting and notification requirements. This is all to the good, but it has to be factored into workload if we want the primary role of the worker to be the child’s care and protection. Nebraska is certainly not alone in this; national estimates of workload time suggest only 20-35% is spent on direct client contact or collateral contact. In efforts to better protect and support children nationally, workers are “increasingly expected to do more assessments, diligent searches, notifications, visits, team meetings, plans, referrals, court testimonies, and documentation.” On the child welfare side, a possible statutory change to consider on this front would be to count court-involved cases per child, instead of per family, regardless of whether the children reside in or out of the home. In-home versus out-of-home is not a perfect proxy for the complexity of the case or family’s needs, and the worker is still be required to make individualized recommendations, referrals, permanency plans, for each child in the home. This could also unintentionally incentivize movement toward out-of-home placement in borderline cases, as the complexity of the case will remain the same, but the worker’s ongoing caseload will decrease when a child is removed to an out-of-home placement.

Investing in our workforce: We need to make sure as a state that we are adequately funding our systems to attract and retain the most qualified candidates. The primary set of recommendations from the Children’s Commission’s Workforce Workgroup regard bringing salaries in line with regional averages and offering greater student loan forgiveness, particularly for workers taking employment in underserved areas of the state. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 Nebraska’s mean wage for child & family social workers was $39,440, lower than nearly all of our surrounding states: Iowa ($43,140), Kansas ($40,810), South Dakota ($39,580), Colorado ($47,960), and Wyoming ($45,130). The national mean wage for child & family social workers employed by state government (excluding schools and hospitals) was $45,730. The same survey estimated that Nebraska’s probation officers & correctional treatment specialists received a mean wage of $40,360, which also fell below most of our neighboring states: South Dakota ($40,820), Wyoming ($46,880), Colorado ($56,540), and Iowa ($66,740). The national annual mean wage was $53,930. Given the Workforce Workgroup’s findings that the average tenure for a child welfare worker in Nebraska is only 3.19 years, and the cost of training a replacement is between $30,000- $36,000, lifting salaries should be seen as an investment rather than a fiscal hit.

Supporting the workforce through adequate training, support, and supervision: National research does not clearly link high caseloads with turnover; rather, turnover may be more likely related to worker support systems to reduce administrative burdens and manage the secondary traumatic stress of working with traumatized children. Other states have seen progress by making counseling available to front line workers to ameliorate the effects of secondary traumatic stress, reducing administrative headaches through modern technology, and offering the flexibility of reduced work-week schedules or telework. For instance, New Hampshire has created telework units comprised of workers with advanced experience. Staff are given materials necessary (laptop, smartphone, etc.) and access to a secure server to upload case information and communicate with supervisors on cases. Employees in the units experienced a better balance of field time and paperwork, fewer distractions, increased communication with the supervisor, increased sense of team membership, less travel in some cases, greater job satisfaction, increased efficiency, and lower turnover.

Increasing focus and targeting funding on prevention: Finally, Nebraska must continue to decrease the children coming into state care overall, through continued emphasis on preventive efforts. The best way to decrease our state worker caseloads is to continue and amplify our state funding and support for evidence-based preventive approaches like alternative response in child welfare, and on the probation side, by encouraging the expansion of community-based resources and diversion programs in all our counties.

Thank you to the Committee for all your time and work to protect Nebraska’s children, and to Senator Howard for bringing this interim study examining a difficult and important issue.

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