LINCOLN — The Nebraska Children’s Commission on Tuesday roughed out a long-awaited strategic plan for the state’s child welfare and juvenile justice system.
Commission members endorsed using a less adversarial approach in responding to reports of less serious child abuse and neglect.
They also called for more focus on prevention and greater collaboration among all parties involved in the system.
The commission did not tackle one of its biggest charges — whether the state should create a separate child services agency or keep child welfare within the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Commission members said they needed more time to consider the issue of restructuring HHS.
The commission was created by lawmakers last spring as part of a legislative package addressing child welfare reform. The group first met in June.
State Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, chairwoman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said she was encouraged by the commission’s work.
While the strategic plan includes few new ideas, Campbell said it is important that all three branches of government and representatives of other groups involved with the child welfare system have come together behind those ideas. “What’s new is you’ve got a group that’s empowered to set these in motion,” she said.
Mary Jo Pankoke, director of the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation, said that what’s also new is the level of hope that the plan will lead to improvements in the safety and well-being of children and permanent homes for them.
“I think there’s a sense of optimism that hasn’t been there in other efforts,” she said.
One idea that has not been part of previous studies or plans is a call for the state to develop a “differential response” to reports of child abuse and neglect. Under that approach, reports could follow one of two tracks:
»When the danger to a child is low to moderate, caseworkers would partner with families to help them figure out how to keep the child safe rather than involve them in the child welfare system. The approach was described as especially helpful when a child is endangered by problems related to poverty.
»When a child is in greater danger, the case would be handled in more traditional ways, with an investigation, possible court action and identification of perpetrators and victims.
Others said the plan’s emphasis on prevention and its focus on front-line workers are different from previous studies and plans.
Among its recommendations, the plan calls for investing in prevention and intervention and building up supports and services so that families can stay out of the child welfare system.
The plan recommends bringing together public and private, formal and informal efforts to help families, rather than just relying on government.
The plan also calls for hiring, training and keeping competent caseworkers, including providing adequate compensation and addressing morale issues.
Kerry Winterer, CEO of HHS, and Thomas Pristow, director of Children and Family Services for HHS, joined their fellow commission members in supporting all of the plan recommendations.
The commission is expected to make adjustments to the strategic plan Dec. 11, with the final report due before the Legislature on Dec. 15.
The report will include recommendations from four subcommittees, including one that looked at payment rates for foster parents.
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