In late 2009, Nebraska’s child welfare system, already under strain, plunged into tumult as the state leaped into privatizing the system without adequate preparation.
More than three years later, the state has restored a degree of stability and there’s been progress on some fronts. At the same time, big challenges remain.
In the wake of recent reports and legislative hearings on Nebraska child welfare, let’s look at some positives, then some of those challenges.
The state Department of Health and Human Services has resumed foster care responsibility in all parts of the state except for Douglas and Sarpy Counties, where cases are being handled by the Nebraska Families Collaborative. NFC is a network of nonprofits that includes long-established organizations such as Boys Town, Catholic Charities, Heartland Family Services and Lutheran Family Services.
On the plus side, the number of Nebraska children in foster care has declined significantly over the past eight years, according to data from the Foster Care Review Office. In 2005, the state had around 6,200 children in out-of-home care. By mid-2012, the figure was down to around 4,300. Of that number, NFC handles around 1,900, about 44 percent of the state total.
Nebraska is making improvements in placing children with relatives, Kim B. Hawekotte, executive director of the Nebraska Foster Care Review Office, told a recent legislative hearing.
The latest report from Hawekotte’s office says that NFC has implemented praiseworthy efficiencies in handling court proceedings.
NFC’s executive director, David Newell, told lawmakers that his organization is now holding down the number of cases per social worker to the goal set by the state. Last year, the Foster Care Review Office identified that goal as a key need for the child welfare system.
Cooperative efforts among HHS, the courts, NFC and law enforcement have shown progress. The Nebraska Supreme Court has done important work in promoting this collaboration and communication.
As for the array of challenges that remain to be addressed, a sampling:
>> Nebraska still needs to move children more quickly out of foster care and into permanent placements.
In mid-2012, Nebraska had 2,084 children age 10 and younger in foster care. On average they had been in out-of-home care for 459 days. That average was unchanged from the end of 2011 and down only slightly (by 5 percent, from 485 days) from the end of 2010, the Foster Care Review Office reports.
>> Nebraska needs to reduce the high turnover of case workers experienced on average by foster children.
Of the 4,313 children in Nebraska foster care in mid-2012, half had experienced four or more placement changes over their lifetimes, according to the Foster Care Review Office.
That board cites the experience in Milwaukee County, Wis., where “children who had only one caseworker achieved timely permanency in 74.5 percent of the cases, as compared with 17.5 percent of those with two workers, and 0.1 percent of those having six workers.”
>> Case workers need to do a better job of providing all documents for cases in many instances. The failure to do so significantly slows the legal process of moving cases forward.
In mid-2012, for example, the therapy records of foster children were filed in only 41 percent of cases. This is a long-standing problem in Nebraska’s child welfare system, and it’s time for it to be addressed.
>> Parents in many instances were not given adequate explanations of processes, requirements and options.
>> Some guardians ad litem, who advocate for a child’s best interests in abuse and neglect cases, do a fine job, but many fumble their duties. Areas needing improvement include filing reports, consulting with the children they represent, interviewing foster parents and attending all hearings.
In addition, HHS and NFC need to hone efforts for family preservation, which is rightly receiving far more emphasis in Nebraska than in the past. As they take up new negotiations this year on payment rates, HHS and NFC need to work constructively together rather than letting tensions sidetrack things.
The Legislature would be wise to allow NFC, which has been providing services on a pilot-program basis, to continue its operations. The NFC’s members are among some of the most respected nonprofit organizations in the state.
Nebraska has slowly begun to right the child welfare ship after the turbulence of the past few years. The state seems on a better course. The main challenges are much-analyzed and clearly identified. Now is the time to tackle them.