LINCOLN — Nebraska should stick with its partly privatized child welfare system for the foreseeable future.
That’s the conclusion reached by an independent evaluation of child welfare services ordered by the Nebraska Legislature.
The study found no significant benefit or harm to children and families from having a private contractor manage Omaha-area cases, compared to the job done by state workers in Lincoln and southeast Nebraska.
But it said the system’s biggest need is for stability following the “extraordinary level of upheaval” during 2½ years of efforts to privatize services statewide.
“If children and families are to experience the benefits of a true ‘reform’ as opposed to either a ‘privatization’ or a ‘de-privatization,’ both the public and the private sector have to be given time to adjust,” the study said.
State Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said Tuesday that she had not had time to read the evaluation.
She said it is one of several upcoming studies and reports that should help lawmakers monitor the troubled child welfare system and decide on next steps.
The evaluation was done by the Center for the Support of Families of Silver Spring, Md., and Hornby Zeller Associates, based in Troy, N.Y.
Lawmakers passed major changes this year based on a months-long investigation into the turmoil following the privatization initiative.
Under those laws, the HHS Committee must recommend by April whether to continue the state’s last remaining privatization contract.
The Omaha-based Nebraska Families Collaborative manages cases in the metro area, but the arrangement is considered a pilot project.
By last March, four of the five original contractors had ended or lost their contracts, and the state had resumed responsibility for all cases outside of the Omaha area.
David Newell, the collaborative CEO and president, said he considers the evaluation positive overall.
He said it supports the idea that changing the system takes time and stability. It also supports the idea that both the collaborative and the state have the capacity to do the job.
“Nebraska needs to stop having this debate about who does the work,” Newell said. “They’re saying, ‘Stay the course,’ and we really need to listen to that.”
In addition, he pointed out that the report called for changes in the rates paid to the collaborative.
Without a “rebalancing” of costs and revenues, the report warned, the collaborative is unlikely to remain viable.
The report did not take a position on whether the collaborative needed to reduce costs or the state needed to increase payments, but it said successful reform efforts require more investment.
Newell said the collaborative, which was formed by Boys Town and other local service providers, has invested $6 million of private money into the contract. It is prepared to sink $2 million more into the effort this year if state payments again fall short of costs.
Thomas Pristow, the children and family services director for the Department of Health and Human Services, said department officials meet monthly with the collaborative to monitor costs and finances.
He noted that the report made clear that privatization costs more than state case management, at least initially. Yet it found mixed results in comparing the outcomes of privatized case management to state case management.
On some measures, state workers in the southeast service area performed better. On some, the collaborative in the Omaha area performed better. The evaluation compared the two areas because they are the most urban parts of the state.
Overall, however, the report said outcomes for children and families in the system fall well short of what they should be.
The report looked at measures such as the percentage of children who suffered abuse or neglect again after leaving the system, the percentage who get adopted within a year of being freed for adoption and the percentage who have two or more placements while in state custody.
Pristow acknowledged that Nebraska’s child welfare system needs to improve its performance.
“That’s the whole reason I was hired,” said Pristow, who became the director in March. “There’s a whole litany of things we are continuing to do to improve outcomes. Each day we’re better than the day before.”
Sarah Helvey of the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest said the performance measures highlight some of the concerns about privatization, which involves turning over what she called the “core government responsibility” of case management.
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