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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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