LINCOLN — Nebraska reached what appears to be a 12-year low this month in the number of children under state oversight.
Thomas Pristow, the state children and family services director, said Wednesday that he expects the number of state wards to keep falling as changes are made in the child welfare system.
“We will continue to take a critical view of the safety of wards, their circumstances and their well-being,” he said.
Information released by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services shows that there were 5,812 state wards as of Monday.
That's 309 fewer children and teenagers since March — a drop of 5 percent.
It's approximately 25 percent fewer than in April 2006, when the number of state wards peaked at about 7,800, according to HHS. Exact comparisons are not possible because the department has changed methods of counting wards.
“That's good. It's certainly the right direction,” State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln said of the trend.
But he cautioned that the numbers need to be watched over time, to see whether they level off or continue going down.
State ward numbers hovered from 6,200 to 6,400 from January 2009 through early this year.
Gov. Dave Heineman and others have expressed concern about Nebraska's high number of state wards, especially the number in out-of-home care.
“Nebraska continues to place children into the child welfare system at approximately two times the national average,” he said in his January State of the State speech. “We can and must do better than that.”
Nebraska had the nation's second-highest rate of removing children from home in 2009, according to federal data. The rate was more than double the national average of 3.4 removals per 1,000 children.
Pristow credited two HHS initiatives for the recent drop in state wards.
One is the use of a new standardized method to assess the risks facing children who are the subject of child abuse and neglect reports.
Called “Structured Decision Making,'' the method has been used since the mid-1980s in more than 20 states.
Pristow said it provides more consistency and guidance for child welfare workers trying to judge which children do not need to become wards, which can safely stay home with the help of services and which need to be removed from their homes.
The method was tested first in the Omaha area and southeast Nebraska, then implemented statewide in July.
The department also pushed to review cases of children who had been living at home for 60 days or more with no problems, yet were still wards of the state.
Pristow said some of those children had been living safely at home but under state supervision for two or three years.
“We worked with the courts and other legal parties to return custody of children to their parents” when appropriate, he said.
The special push ended Aug. 30, but Pristow said he expects to do a similar review next year.
He said he expects that the state ward numbers will continue to fall as workers get more comfortable with the new assessment method.
Pristow also anticipates that Nebraska will shift toward more children getting services at home rather than being placed in foster care. The proportion of state wards being served at home showed little change since March, even as the total number of wards dropped.
Meanwhile, HHS officials are talking with community groups and consultants from the Annie E. Casey Foundation about taking another step toward keeping children out of the child welfare system.
Called “differential response,'' this step would address less serious family problems without making children state wards.
Coash said he wants Nebraska to adopt the differential response approach and has an interim legislative study on the idea.
“The minute that kid is spending the night outside of his own bed, it's traumatic and it reduces the likelihood that he will return home,” Coash said.
State lawmakers will hear about issues affecting the number of state wards at a hearing set for Friday.
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