This is a truly sad commentary on the condition of child care in Nebraska;

A few years ago, one of my guardian ad-Litem cases walked about thirty miles on a ten degree night when he was sent outside wearing only jeans and a T shirt at a privatized juvenile detention center.

That he did not die or suffer permanent physical damage was a miracle.

Last year, a Pennsylvania judge was incarcerated for sending youth to prison for profit (he behaved as a commissioned salesman – selling innocent youth into jail).

The following article brings to light the commonality of for profit youth prisons and I think the abundance of meanness and poor management that combine to further damage the lives of America’s youth.

Reading the Class Action lawsuit that this report is based on is moving, and deserves to be made known to a larger public audience. That this nation supports the intensity of abuse to youth that it does explains the crime rates, prison rates (13 million prison and jail releases last year) and failing schools.

Federal Lawsuit Seeks to End Years of Physical, Sexual Abuse of Teenage Inmates

Please send me related stories.

Support KARA’s effort to stop punishing children; sponsor a conversation in your community (invite me to speak at your conference) / Buy our book or donate

Follow us on Twitter

State’s child, family welfare reforms collapse
by George Lauby (North Platte Bulletin) – 10/1/2011

Gov. Dave Heineman

First, three top private companies backed out of their deals to provide child and family welfare services in Nebraska.

Second, the Nebraska State Auditor found severe financial problems with the two-year-old “privatized” program.

Third, the man at the top resigned.

That was how a sweeping state welfare reform collapsed in just two years.

Director Todd Reckling announced his resignation one week after a state audit of the program’s finances reported serious problems.

Reckling, 44, said he is resigning for health reasons effective Oct. 14. Already thin, he had been losing weight, coworkers told an Omaha news reporter.

Reckling was in charge of Nebraska’s controversial child welfare privatization, which put the child welfare system in the hands of five privately-owned “lead” agencies.

The system-wide reform was aimed at decreasing the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services’s hand, while allowing the department to retain oversight.

The idea was capitalism and competition, with government supervision, would drive costs down while ensuring the quality of care stayed high.

It never worked in most of Nebraska.

Early on, trouble appeared. Only one company applied to lead the programs in central and western Nebraska, so there was no competition.

Small-scale group homes for vulnerable children were closed in western and central Nebraska, such as the Alliance Boys Ranch, North Platte’s Boy’s and Girl’s Home and two Salvation Army group homes.

When the North Platte group homes closed, employees told the Bulletin that the program was taking a giant step backward — eliminating existing programs and moving already alienated children to new and strange places.

Officials, including Reckling, were reassuring. When the Salvation Army homes closed, officials said children would be cared for in an expanded Boys and Girls Home in North Platte, or in Cedars Home near Broken Bow.

But those homes closed too.

In contrast to small group homes, the Nebraska division of children and family services is a large unit — employing more than 1,800 people.

It is the largest of six state health and human services divisions, including not only child welfare and juvenile services, but also adult protective services, economic assistance/welfare programs, the refugee program and child support enforcement activities.

As the privatization got underway, Reckling signed contracts with five large companies in 2009 to oversee those programs. The state program came to be called “Families Matter.”

The program suffered an astonishing drop out rate at the top level. By October 2010, three of the five lead companies had withdrawn, including the agency handling all of central and western Nebraska, the Boys and Girls Home.

Prompted by complaints, Nebraska State Auditors investigated the Families Matter program during the summer, and released their findings Sept. 7.

They found the costs of the program had gone up 27 percent in two years, with millions of dollars improperly accounted. At the same time, the top agencies said they didn’t have enough money to operate.

The audit made headlines all over the state. Democrats pointed blame at Gov. Dave Heineman, who made no comment for several days. But eight days after the audit was released, Reckling announced his resignation and Heineman spoke.

Heineman said the state will continue trying to privatize Nebraska’s child welfare system, but must do better.

“I want to help our children and families, but this reform effort has not been easy to implement,” he said in a news conference. “We can and we must do better.”

“I believe in accountability, so I’m not going to make excuses for what has occurred. I expect better results and I expect them soon,” he said.

Heineman expressed special disappointment with Boys and Girls Home of Sioux City, Iowa, which failed to pay subcontractors after it dropped out of the program last October.

Boys and Girls Home was in charge of central and western Nebraska, including North Platte.

Heineman said BGH’s failure to pay its bills was “irresponsible and very disappointing.”

And he compared the failure to a bad performance on the football field.

“I think we have the right idea, but we’ve got to execute it better,” Heineman said. “It’s like a football team. If you don’t execute the play, you don’t score a touchdown. Well, we’ve lost a lot of yards here lately because we’re not executing as well as we should have. But I still believe we can make this work.”

When the BGH pulled out, local providers scrambled to come up with alternatives. The North Platte School District created an educational program for students in grades 6-12 during the school year, hiring a teacher and an aide and setting up a classroom at the high school.

The county sheriff made plans to transport kids across the state to the nearest place, in Columbus.

In June, Family Skill Building Services re-opened one of the Salvation Army homes that had been closed during the reshuffling and now operates the Nebraska Youth Center, a home for about a dozen boys on the north side of town.

Not in these parts

Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte said privatization shouldn’t be tried again now in central and western Nebraska, and never have been tried throughout the state in the first place.

“It probably should have been done on a smaller level (in southeastern Nebraska). Out here, we don’t have a lot of providers,” Hansen said. “Out here, Boys and Girls Home was the only bidder for lead agency. Looking back, that was a clue that we had a problem.”


It seems logical that the Boys and Girls Home building on 2300 E. Second might reopen for vulnerable children under better management, but the price of the empty building is too high, Hansen said. The Boys and Girls Home, Inc. inherited the building, and is now asking $1 million for it, even though its taxable value is about $400,000.

Among the financial scandals, as private agencies failed to deliver and collapsed, foster parents were not paid or were underpaid, especially those with children with special needs, Hansen said.

Foster parents dropped out in droves. For example, the number of foster homes in Dawson County dwindled from 45 to 11, according to the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

“There are lots of upset foster parents,” Hansen said. “These are wards of the state. The state needs to take responsibility.”

State auditors also found that some subcontractors – smaller companies with workers on the front lines – hired workers with no experience or education and paid them around $10 an hour.

However, the subcontractors turned around and billed the state $47 an hour for the work.

Staggering along

How it is all reformed will “depend on what the governor wants to do,” Hansen said, but he and some other senators think the HHS child and family division should be separated from the overall HHS department, so authorities can keep better watch.

Auditors complained of their struggle to get facts and figures from HHS, even though state law explicitly requires state departments to open their books for a public audit.

Hansen has often experienced the same problems — it is difficult for legislators to study the HHS operation, even a legislator such as Hansen on the health and human services or appropriations committees, which have the duty to oversee the HHS.

Hansen said breaking up the Health and Human Services department would make it more transparent.

“As legislators, we don’t think we’re being very accountable,” he said.

Local critics

Counselors, clients, parents and foster parents have long expressed dissatisfaction with HHS services.

Ongoing dissatisfaction led them to go to lengths to arrange a meeting in early August with Todd Reckling and other state officials.

Lisa Zlomke of North Platte’s Aurora Counseling and Jenny Olson of Liberty House in North Platte attended. The meeting was arranged by Melanie Williams-Smotherman, the owner of Family Advocacy Movement, headquartered in Lincoln.

The meeting lasted three-and-a-half hours, and “we had the ability to share examples of specific cases to illustrate points and to show three short videos during that time, including two regarding the harmful practice of drugging foster care children – which is becoming quite routine,” Williams-Smotherman said afterwards.

At the meeting, Williams-Smotherman said the number of Nebraska children taken from parents and put into the foster care and group home system is too high.

Most of those cases do not involve abuse, she said, but rather alleged neglect, she said.

Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va. also says that too many children are taken from too many homes in the state.

According to the organization’s numbers, Nebraska removed 3,373 children from their natural homes last year. That’s nearly 7.5 of every 1,000 children, based on 2009 population numbers.

The national average is 3.4 per 1,000.

The only state that rates higher than Nebraska, according to Wexler, is West Virginia with a rate of 7.7.

Zlomke and Olson also said that HHS officials in the North Platte region do not contract services with private companies such as theirs.

Zlomke and Olson allege that Region II officials keep welfare recipients – particularly those with mental and behavioral disabilities — in a tight circle of select caregivers who really don’t have any competition, don’t do a good job, but are well paid.

This report was first published in the Sept. 21 print issue of the North Platte Bulletin.