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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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