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 decreases in funding for programs that have been incredibly beneficial to children is concerning to us at Voices for Children. In the first in a series of blog posts, we will examine the consequences of cuts to programs that have improved Nebraska’s child welfare system.
Reduce rates in congregate care services by 10%: When children are placed in out-of-home care, every effort should be made to place them in a family-like setting over congregate care in order to provide more stability and lasting relationships with trusted adults. Nevertheless, congregate placements are a part of our placement continuum, and a reduction in rates paid to providers could result in reduced quality of services available to children or even facility closures, leaving a gap in our system response.
Refer 50% fewer relative and kinship placements: Studies show that children who are not able to remain with their parents have the most favorable educational, health, and psychological outcomes when they are placed in kinship care—with other relatives such as grandparents or aunts and uncles. However, even loving family members need ongoing training and support when asked to suddenly take in and care for children full-time. Currently, child-placing agencies across the state provide support for these placements. The current budget proposal would instead ask an already-burdened DHHS workforce to take on these responsibilities. This is troubling, especially in light of the promising growth of relative placement in the last two years, up from 28% in 2012 to nearly 46% this past year.
End Family Finding contracts: Family engagement is an essential support to children in foster care. The proposal to end Family Finding contracts that were recently established in 2015 again suggests that DHHS staff will absorb this work. The Family Finding model has demonstrated extremely promising results in finding permanency for children in foster care, particularly older youth and children of color, by finding and meaningfully engaging family members. Currently contracted providers have the expertise, time and ability to implement the model as intended; moving the program in-house could result in a loss of fidelity to this evidence-based program, and thus a loss of positive results for kids who deserve lifelong relationships.
Cut funding for Right Turn: Right Turn was formed in the wake of Nebraska’s 2008 Safe Haven law, which allowed parents or guardians to leave children of all ages at safe sites without punishment. In the first few months, many teenagers were left at these safe sites, 75% of whom were in adoptive or guardianship homes. Right Turn provides invaluable services and support to adoptive families, creating stable situations for children who are placed in foster and adoptive homes. Cutting ties with Right Turn could result in more youth returning to state custody after placement with a family, creating a disruption in their care or a loss of permanency.
In order to best serve and protect children in the child welfare system, Nebraska needs to continue funding these programs. Eliminating funds for these programs, particularly without simultaneously increasing funds to hire and train more DHHS staff in implementing them, would affect the thousands of kids in Nebraska’s child welfare system—over 11,000 in 2014—and reverse positive progress made in the past several years.
No matter the cuts that are made in our final budget, we have to keep in mind that the decisions our lawmakers make today will have consequences for our future. Our careful planning and future thinking as a state have allowed us to pay for things like schools and universities, health care and public safety, and to weather the recession in better shape than most states. We owe it to children and youth to create a state budget that lays out a plan for their future and gives them the same opportunities for success that generations before them have experienced.
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 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.