LINCOLN — Nebraska’s child welfare system is still suffering from the instability caused by the state’s privatization experiment, according to a report released Friday.
The Foster Care Review Office’s annual report on children in out-of-home care found concerning levels of caseworker turnover, missing documentation and a lack of complete case plans during 2011 and the first half of this year.
All three problems worsened after the state attempted to turn over major responsibilities for managing child welfare and juvenile justice cases to private contractors.
And all three contribute to longer stays in foster care for children, the report said.
“It is ... important to remember that foster care is designed to be a temporary solution to the problems of child abuse and neglect,” it said. “Unfortunately, many children linger in the foster care system while their childhood slips away.”
The average Nebraska foster child as of June 30 had spent 485 days — or 16 months — away from home, the report said.
That total does not count time that some children spent in foster care following previous removals from their home.
Adding in previous removals, nearly half the 3,272 children whose cases were reviewed in 2011 had been in out-of-home care for more than 18 months.
Linda Cox, the office’s interim executive director, said the common theme running through the report is the continued fallout from Nebraska’s privatization effort.
Troubles plagued the effort almost from the time it began in November 2009.
By this past March, four of the five original contractors had ended or lost their contracts and the state had resumed responsibility for all cases outside of the Omaha area.
The lone remaining contractor, the Omaha-based Nebraska Families Collaborative, manages cases in the metro area but the arrangement is considered a pilot project and is under evaluation.
The review office report said the resulting instability led to more changes in children’s caseworkers.
Of the 4,313 children in out-of-home care on June 30, 61 percent had had four or more state caseworkers during their lifetime. That compares with 35 percent who had seen that many caseworkers as of Dec. 31, 2008, before the privatization began.
The report said each caseworker change means a child must repeat private and often painful issues and creates a risk that important information will be lost. Changes also mean workers are not familiar with children and families or their needs.
A Wisconsin study found that 75 percent of children with one caseworker returned home or got new permanent homes in a timely manner, compared with only 18 percent of those with two caseworkers.
Turmoil created by the privatization effort led to more problems with getting key steps in children’s cases properly documented. Without documentation, the courts and HHS cannot get an accurate picture of the progress or lack of progress by parents and children.
Cox said the documentation problems have continued.
The review office report said 19 percent of case files reviewed in the first half of this year lacked reports on the safety of the child’s placement.
Documentation about mothers’ visits with their children was missing from 21 percent of files, and documentation about fathers’ visits was missing from 26 percent.
Children’s therapy records were missing from 59 percent of case files.
In addition, 51 percent of children had incomplete, outdated or no written permanency plan. Such plans should specify services needed, and time frames and tasks to get children back home or into new permanent homes.
Cox said it is too early to tell whether changes made by the Legislature and the Department of Health and Human Services since the beginning of the year are improving the situation.
But she said she is encouraged to see more discussion and problem-solving collaboration by groups involved with the child welfare system in recent months.
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