The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has made some commendable progress toward reducing the number of state wards in the child welfare system. Even as the statistics improve, however, there is more work to be done.
The state reached a 12-year low this month in the number of children removed from their homes because of neglect or abuse and placed under state care. On Oct. 1, there were 5,812 state wards, a decline of about 5 percent, or 309 children, since March. And that is about 25 percent fewer than were in state custody in April 2006, which was the high water mark, about 7,800 wards.
Thomas Pristow, state children and family services director, said he believes the total will continue to decline as changes in the state's child welfare system are implemented. He said two initiatives have driven the recent downward trend. One was a harder push to review cases of children who had lived at home for 60 days or more without problems.
The second, he said, is Structured Decision Making, a model used in more than 20 states, including Minnesota and Michigan. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines this as an approach that uses “clearly defined and consistently applied decision-making criteria” in screening cases for possible investigation, determining response priority, identifying immediate threats for harm and estimating the risk of future abuse and neglect. The needs and strengths of the child and family are identified and considered in creating a case plan, the agency said.
That approach, Pristow said, helps guide child welfare workers trying to decide what situations justify removing a child.
Federal statistics indicated that in 2009, Nebraska was No. 2 in the nation in the rate of taking children from their homes. The national average was 3.4 removals per 1,000 children; in Nebraska, it was more than double that.
But Pristow contends that the numbers of state wards will continue to decline as welfare workers become more used to Structured Decision Making. He also said he expects the state will begin providing more children with services at home rather than removing them to foster care.
The next step for the child welfare system may be to use “differential response,” which is designed to address less serious problems while keeping children from becoming wards of the state. An interim legislative study is being done on the program.
Pristow said that he hopes to move to differential response next year, either as a pilot program or across the state.
Nebraska's child welfare caseload is still proportionally far above the national average, but it is declining and, by all accounts, should continue to do so. These positive changes show a progressive attitude and determination to make this state a better place when it comes to dealing with endangered children.