Sunday, November 16, 2008

The right way vs. the Nebraska way

    The Nebraska Legislature is meeting this week to amend the state's safe haven law. Some legislators want to do it the right way: include provisions expanding help, particularly mental health services, for families so desperate that they feel their only option is to use the safe haven law. But the Governor and the speaker of the state's unicameral legislature prefer the Nebraska way: Kick the families in the teeth and sweep the problem under the rug.

    According to the Associated Press, in Nebraska, if lawmakers want to do more during a special session of the legislature than the governor asks it to, it takes a two-thirds vote – and even then, lawmakers still might need the governor's permission. The governor limited the special session to considering bills that would reduce the age of children for whom the safe-haven law would apply. So without that two-thirds vote, lawmakers can't lift a finger to actually help struggling families. It would have to wait until the regular session in January. The Speaker of the legislature says that's fine with him. And the head of the state child welfare agency, Todd Landry, (you remember, the one who thought the families' plight was a topic for sick humor) was on national television Saturday night once again rubbing salt into the families' wounds. This is all in keeping with Nebraska's record for being more hostile to vulnerable families than almost any other state, as evidenced by the fact that, year after year, it takes away more children, and holds more children in foster care, than almost any other.

    To their credit, however, some Nebraska lawmakers are fed up with Landry's agency. According to an Omaha World-Herald story:

Several lawmakers criticized leaders of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, accusing HHS of soft-pedaling the severe psychological and behavioral problems involved in many of the cases. … Sen. Gwen Howard of Omaha spoke her mind Friday. Howard, a longtime social worker who resigned from HHS to serve in the Legislature, blasted department leaders, saying they have portrayed the state's 35 safe haven cases as examples of bad parenting and mischievous children. Howard said many of the families who have used the safe haven law face severe crisis and in some cases are in danger. Howard and Sen. DiAnna Schimek of Lincoln said many of the 35 cases involved children with severe mental health problems.

Howard said department leaders have also given state senators bad information about how well HHS is identifying and serving at-risk children. "There's a lack of basic trust here — trust that you earn through honesty," Howard said. "It really troubles me when the director of the department paints a falsely rosy picture."

Before the safe-haven law passed, Howard, some of Howard's colleagues, and others, raised a series of objections to the entire safe-haven approach. As the World-Herald reported in another story:

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha … argued that the state should not condone babies being abandoned. If lawmakers really wanted to help infants and children, he said, they should fund prenatal care, food stamps and other services and work to change the stigma on pregnant, unmarried teenagers. Sen. Tony Fulton of Lincoln … was concerned about putting the babies in the state's foster care system. … Sen. DiAnna Schimek of Lincoln cited studies in states with safe haven laws showing that, after passage of the law, as many infants have been left to die as have been left in safe havens. [Sen. Howard] said the proposed safe haven procedures would undermine traditional adoption and child welfare practices. … Voices for Children and private adoption agencies argued that mothers should have counseling, fathers should be afforded rights and babies should someday be able to know their family medical history.

But with every other state already on the safe haven bandwagon, Nebraska ultimately followed suit – except that, as part of a weird compromise to get the bill passed, lawmakers didn't limit it to infants. The rest is recent history.

So now we'll see if the legislature caves in to the governor and Landry and their sweep-it-all-under-the-rug approach, leaving families to struggle in their desperation, or whether the lawmakers who understand the deeper problems will prevail. If they do perhaps, for once, the right way and the Nebraska way will be one and the same.