State lawmakers today advanced bills that would return case management of most child welfare cases to the state and loosen up a law intended to crack down on truancy in Nebraska schools.
Passage of LB961 marked the fifth child welfare bill to get initial approval from lawmakers this week, all of them the culmination of a year-long investigation into problems with the state’s privatization of the care of abused and neglected children. Four of the five private companies that took over case management in 2009 have dropped out or ended their contracts.
The bill was amended to allow the only remaining contractor, Nebraska Families Collaborative, to continue handling cases in the Omaha area as a sort of pilot project. Omaha Sen. Bob Krist said the state should have started out its privatization that way — with a pilot project.
Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery noted that the capitol rotunda was nearly empty as the child welfare bills were debated – absent of the usual lobbyists because there “are no highly paid lobbyists working on behalf of kids,” only nonprofits operating on shoestring budgets.
“Kids need to be represented and we must do it,” he said.
In other business, the Legislature also gave first-round approval to a bill, LB933, that would loosen up a truancy law that requires school districts to notify county attorneys when a student misses more than 20 days of school, whether or not they’re excused absences.
Senators passed a law in 2010 that was intended to deal with the 22,000 Nebraska students missing more than 20 days of school. Last year, that figure dropped to 18,000 – which some see as evidence the law worked.
Lincoln Public Schools, for example, have seen a 15 percent reduction in absenteeism since the law’s implementation.
But the law has unleashed a barrage of complaints from parents whose children were reported to prosecutors even though they were sick, attending family events or participating in special events. So Sen. Brad Ashford’s bill was amended so that when a student reaches 20 excused absences, it’s up to the school district to decide whether prosecutors should get involved, since state law requires students to attend school.
If a prosecutor gets involved, meetings with parents would be held at schools, not courthouses, under the amended bill.
Sen. Chris Langemeier said lawmakers “went a little over the top” in passing the 2010 law.
“We’ve got to put some discretion back into this,” he said.
The state Department of Education and state Board of Education opposed changing the law, which they believe is working.
Despite some concern that school districts would each handle absences differently, the bill passed, 35-3. It still faces two more rounds of debate before a final vote.
Reported by Deena Winter, email@example.com.
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