Last week, the 2015 Legislative Session officially came to a close. With 18 new Senators, this year brought a lot of changes and we are pleased to say that it also resulted in progress for Nebraska kids and families. This year, Voices for Children testified on 47 different bills and 21 bills we supported were ultimately became law on their own or as amendments to other bills. In addition to our full Sine Die Legislative Update, here are some highlights of this year’s legislative session:
Access to affordable child care helps keep children safe so parents can work. Over a decade ago, cuts to child care assistance resulting in eligibility being cut from 185% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) to 120% FPL. This led many families to face what is known as the “cliff effect”, where they are cut off from receiving assistance long before they can afford child care independently. This year, the Legislature took an important step forward in addressing the cliff effect with the passage of LB 81. LB 81 allows families up to two years of transitional child care assistance at up to 185% FPL. This new law should reduce the impact of the cliff effect for many working families.
Another important step for families this year was the increase in payment rates in the Aid to Dependent (ADC) program, which helps mitigate the consequences of extreme poverty for kids and prevents kids from entering the child welfare system for financial reasons. Although the initial bill to increase payment rates was vetoed by the Governor, LB 607 was given final approval. This bill increases payment rates in the ADC program for the first time in nearly 30 years and eases a family’s transition off the program. The bill also creates an intergenerational poverty commission to develop an ongoing plan to address poverty in the state.
Legislation was also passed to better protect working mothers from pregnancy discrimination. LB 627 defines what reasonable accommodations an employer should make to ensure that pregnant women don’t have to choose between their own health and that of their unborn babies and their jobs.
Finally, we were pleased that the Legislature failed to pass legislation to reduce the minimum wage for young people. LB 599 would have allowed employers to pay high school students a lower minimum wage and made it more challenging for young people contributing to family income or saving for college.
Among the work left undone this year is making improvements to tax credits for working families. A bill to improve the state child tax credit was left on general file and a bill to increase the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) failed to advance from committee. The Legislature also failed to guarantee that families have access to earned sick days when needed to care for their own health or the health of a child. We hope that the Legislature will continue to look at these issues in the years to come.
This session, the Legislature bolstered supports for vulnerable children by enacting much-needed updates to existing law and policy. LB 15 initially contained a comprehensive list of duties and rights for Guardians ad Litem (GALs), attorneys who represent the endangered children in abuse or neglect proceedings. In its final version, the bill simply requires the Supreme Court of Nebraska to enact standards for GALs into court rule by July of this year, which will give judges a mechanism by which to hold underperforming attorneys accountable.
LB 566 clarifies and strengthens Nebraska’s implementation of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), protecting Native American children’s right to maintain ties to their heritage and tribal community. Native children touched by the child welfare system will benefit from extended family time and emphasis on cultural engagement, a carefully defined list of efforts required to be provided and culturally-sensitive placement options available, and increased involvement of their tribe or tribes at every stage of the proceeding.
Finally, LB 243 expands upon family finding efforts already underway in the state. The bill allocates funding for the Department of Health and Human Services to contract with providers dedicated to finding family members for children lost in the system. The goal is to promote kinship care and lifelong emotional connections for children removed from their own homes of origin, and an independent evaluation conducted by a Nebraska university will assess the program’s effectiveness. In its final incarnation, LB 243 also incorporated LB 441, a clean-up bill that clarifies and increases supports for former foster youth in the Bridge to Independence program.
The Legislature took important steps forward in the realm of juvenile justice, enacting administrative reforms that will increase oversight, data collection, and accountability, and substantive reforms that will further decriminalize the way at-risk children and youth are handled by the justice system.
LB 347 and LB 265 both provide additional oversight to the juvenile justice system, by expanding the role of the Office of the Inspector General and the Foster Care Review Office, respectively, to probation cases in which the youth is placed out of the home. Additionally, LB 265 establishes a pilot project to examine how data may be comprehensively collected from start to finish in child welfare and juvenile justice cases, and incorporates the provisions of LB 13 to create a data collection and assessment program evaluating the effectiveness of programs funded by Community-Based Juvenile Services Aid money.
Meanwhile, LB 482 nudges counties toward using those grant dollars, restricting the means by which non-criminal status offenders can be brought into court and removed from their homes. The bill’s provisions require that community-based efforts be attempted before a child may be charged, and exhausted before the youth may be detained. Youth who have committed no crime may not be fingerprinted, and may not be held in jail-like detention facilities. Additionally, the bill includes the provisions of LB 212, eliminating the indiscriminate shackling of all youth in the juvenile court. Once the law goes into effect in August, only those youth who truly present a real flight risk or danger to themselves or others will be physically restrained during juvenile court proceedings.