Wednesday will mark the final day of this year’s legislative session. Voices for Children will post our full legislative sine die in the next couple weeks, but for now, we’d like to take a moment and highlight five victories for Nebraska’s kids:
- Schools in high-poverty neighborhoods can take advantage of a federal program to feed more children, without fear of penalty. Children learn better when they aren’t hungry, and in 2014, the federal government instituted a program called the Community Eligibility Provision that reimburses high-poverty schools for providing free and reduced lunch to all enrolled children. Nebraska currently ranks second to last in state take-up of the program. Important statutory changes were passed in LB 1066 this year to ensure that schools choosing to take up community eligibility aren’t unfairly penalized. We hope with these changes, more of our schools will begin to offer free and reduced meals to all kids!
- The best interests of children will remain the priority in child welfare cases, not the religious beliefs of child-serving agencies. Protecting children’s interests should be the sole purpose of our state child welfare system and the sole focus of any agencies that we contract with to serve kids and families. LB 975 would have given child-placing agencies acting in a “sincere religious belief” sweeping immunity from state action. We feared this broad language could lead to situations in which an agency’s religious beliefs took precedence over a child’s best interests, and are happy that the bill’s sponsor decided to bracket it this year after strong opposition from Voices and others.
- Child care programs and employees will receive tax credits if they improve their quality rating. Nebraska created the “Step Up to Quality” program in 2013 to improve early care and education quality and increase positive child outcomes. LB 889 offers tax credit incentives to programs and providers as they take on increased training, family engagement, and updates to their curriculum and learning environment to improve on the quality rating scale.
- Children too young to understand court proceedings will no longer have to face trial. When we published our data snapshot on Kindergarten Court, eighteen states had set a minimum age for delinquency charging. That number is now nineteen, as the Legislature passed LB 894, prohibiting children age 10 and younger from being charged in the juvenile court. Beginning in July 2017, court jurisdiction over very young kids must instead be sought through a family-focused filing that will involve the Department of Health and Human Services rather than Juvenile Probation.
- Residential facilities must document and report the use extended solitary confinement of minors. For adolescents, whose brains are still under construction, extended time spent forcibly isolated can be incredibly damaging. To ensure we aren’t subjecting children to the unnecessary harms of segregation, LB 894 also creates a uniform definition for “room restriction” and requires all facilities housing minors to seek supervisor approval, document and report all instances where children are confined alone for periods longer than two hours.
We are thrilled by these victories for Nebraska’s children and youth, and will continue working hard to make sure all our state’s kids reap their benefits.
Finally: One bill is still on the Legislature’s agenda for the final day of debate on Wednesday: LB 947, which would permit recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to obtain professional or commercial licenses in our state. You can read our letter of support here, and we encourage you to take this last opportunity this session to contact your legislator and tell them all Nebraska’s kids deserve the opportunity to follow their dreams!