“Mother should I trust the government?”
That phrase from the 1979 song Mother by Pink Floyd seems to take on new meaning every day, not only nationally but also in Nebraska. Consider problems with some State Patrol brass falsifying records – those involved have been fired, reprimanded or allowed to resign.
But there’s one serious “lie” that is finally being addressed by a measure offered by second-year lawmaker Senator Justin Wayne of Omaha. His bill (LB 729) would remove sovereign immunity clauses that protect the Department of Health and Human Services from claims resulting from a failure to warn, notify, or inform of a ward’s history as a victim or perpetrator of sexual abuse in cases of adoption or placement.
In a case 10 years ago, a caseworker failed to tell a couple who took in a 6-year-old foster boy about the youngster’s history of sexual abuse. The caseworker was asked, but he lied about the serious medical and mental health issues the child had, despite a state law that requires such disclosure.
After the boy sexually assaulted another child in their home, the couple sued. But the case was thrown out because the state is immune from claims based on misrepresentation and deceit by state employees. In an opinion last year, Nebraska Supreme Court Justice William Cassel added a caveat: that lawmakers may wish to consider whether those exceptions still should be protected.
"From the perspective of the parents, immunity 'adds insult to injury,'" the judge wrote.
"I think there's some core principles that we all have," Wayne recently told members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee during a hearing on his bill. "I think one of them is we don’t think government should ever be deceitful and misrepresent facts. Whatever they are."
Simply put, the immunity isn’t right. Wayne told his colleagues they shouldn’t allow the state to lie and get away with it without some kind of action. It’s not OK for the state to lie, and if it does, it should be called out and should have to pay for it, he said.
The woman who unsuccessfully sued now lives with her husband and family in another state. She attended the hearing to speak in support of Wayne’s bill and reminded lawmakers that a bill was passed 15 years ago to require state officials to disclose all available information on a child being placed. All information.
A good law. But there are no repercussions for state employees but an immeasurable amount for the family, or – more likely – families that have been impacted. Nebraska’s foster care system has been studied and the results have raised concerns that are being dealt with.
All well and good. But now it’s time to get down to the rest of the problem and take action to make it clear that lying will not be tolerated. There has to be consequences. The State Patrol seems to understand that now. This bill would make it clear to the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Lincoln Journal Star reported that Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Senator Laura Ebke of Crete asked Wayne if he thinks the state should only be held accountable for lying when it has to do with kids. Wayne said that’s a broader discussion that he would love to have.
It’s sad that it has come to this, but I agree that such a discussion needs to happen, sooner than later. Kudos to Senators Wayne and Ebke for recognizing that.
J.L. Schmidt is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association. He has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered Independent for 19 years.