Jill Johnson of Omaha agreed last fall to take a state ward into her home — a 12-year-old boy she had known since he was a preschooler.
Nebraska Families Collaborative in Omaha sought her out, knowing she had worked with him professionally in the past to resolve his behavioral issues.
When he had to leave his previous foster home because of behavioral issues — it wasn’t safe for him or the family he lived with — Johnson and her husband said the boy could come and live with them.
It was then that the Johnsons found out they had to go through a rigorous licensing process that would delay bringing him into their home by months.
By the time they are approved, at least five months will have gone by, Johnson said.
A state law that went into effect in July has been causing concern among agencies that find foster homes for kids. It has slowed the process for placements of children with families in which at least one adult knows them.
In the 2012 session, senators passed a bill that required licensing of all foster parents who were not related to a child by blood, marriage or adoption.
This year, Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash has introduced a bill (LB265) that would allow foster children to access kinship and relative foster care more easily.
The hearing on that bill is scheduled for Thursday at 1:30 p.m. in front of the Health and Human Services Committee.
It exempts kinship and relative homes from the requirement to be licensed, or from certain other requirements. It defines kinship homes as those in which the caretaker has lived with the child or has had significant contact with the child.
“It would really allow us more flexibility with placing kids with people that they know,” said Jewel Schifferns, kinship care services manager with Nebraska Families Collaborative.
At a time when there is a shortage of foster homes in the state, the agency has seen a significant decline in kinship placements since July.
On July 1, the agency had 115 foster homes with kids who knew the caretaker before placement, she said. Since then, 26 of the homes have been licensed, 17 are ineligible and 14 still are working on licensing.
The remaining are no longer caring for foster children.
As a result, Nebraska Families Collaborative has been placing more kids with foster parents the children don’t know, she said.
Dave Newell, president and CEO of Nebraska Families Collaborative, said licensing takes a lot of time.
When children are removed from their parents, it is the least traumatic if they can go stay with someone they know.
“That’s far less scary for them than going to somebody that they don’t know,” Newell said. “And we really lost that flexibility when the law changed.”
The intent of the law, to raise the quality of foster homes, was good, Newell said, and Nebraska Families Collaborative supports licensing homes.
But there have been some problems with it.
With licensing, there is somewhat of a built-in bias against low-income families who must have a certain amount of square footage per person in the home, for example.
There also have been cases in which four siblings, for example, two of whom have one father and two have another, cannot all be placed with a paternal relative. That forces the agency to place all four together in “stranger care” or split up the siblings, Schifferns said.
The rules could be more flexible on things that don’t affect the safety of the child, Newell said.
With Coash’s LB265, homes still would have to be approved by HHS, with a background check and a home study.
The homes could pursue licensing and would have the assistance of HHS to do so.
For relative homes pursuing licensure, requirements that don’t affect the safety of the child may be waived.