Nebraska has seen a lot of turmoil in its child welfare system, yet one thing lamentably has remained unchanged: The state continues to remove a high percentage of children out of troubled homes.
One factor for the high removal rate is that Nebraska approaches every new case in the same way, using a criminal justice-style investigation. It’s time for Nebraska — which has more than 4,300 children in out-of-home care — to look at more flexible approaches.
Consider the numbers. In 59 percent of Nebraska child welfare cases, the state Foster Care Office reports, the reason for removal isn’t physical abuse; it’s a failure to provide for the child’s needs, whether physical, educational, medical or emotional. (Physical abuse was the reason last year for removal in 19 percent of cases.)
Experience in other states shows that a more flexible approach can produce encouraging improvements. Under such an approach, a family-focused method called “alternative response,” the state pinpoints each family’s needs and then provides the household with support so that parents’ circumstances are improved and children have a better chance of remaining at home.
State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln is sponsoring a bill that would shift Nebraska toward this more sensible approach in cases that don’t involve physical abuse. At a recent hearing his bill received support both from the state Department of Health and Human Services and from child welfare advocates.
Consider the positive experiences in Minnesota and Ohio, two states that have made the switch. After identifying families’ needs, the states coordinate with nonprofit organizations to provide counseling, parental education and assistance with food and clothing, housing, utilities and job-related needs. In some cases, parents receive treatment for drug or alcohol abuse.
A study of the Minnesota experience showed that this approach “reduced subsequent recurrence among families for whom it was intended without compromising the safety of children.”
In addition, “Subsequent costs were reduced because fewer of the children and families reappeared in the system.” And “feedback from families and social workers showed that both groups preferred the alternative response when it was possible.”
Results were similar in Ohio, where a study of that state’s experience found:
>> “Removals and out-of-home placements of children declined.”
>> “There was evidence of improved family engagement and satisfaction under alternative response. Initial emotional reactions were more positive and less negative. Families were more satisfied with their workers and felt that they had more say in decisions that were made.”
>> “Workers reported feeling better able to intervene effectively.”
Child safety, of course, must remain the paramount concern in child welfare cases. The experience in Ohio under the alternative response approach was encouraging. The study concluded: “No evidence was found that replacement of traditional investigations by alternative response family assessments reduced the safety of the children. Children were as safe under alternative response as under traditional approaches.”
If Nebraska’s child welfare system makes this switch, it would parallel what’s happening in the state’s juvenile justice system, which is shifting away from a lock-’em-up approach for nonviolent delinquents.
The fiscal note for Coash’s legislation estimates an added cost to the state of $1.3 million over two years. The federal government covers some of the costs for alternative response, however, and Nebraska has applied for funding. In Minnesota, the budget news wound up being reassuring: The mean cost for families using the traditional child welfare approach was $4,967; for families using alternative response, it was $3,688.
Carolyn Rooker, executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska, notes the accomplishments from this approach and concludes, “One-size doesn’t fit all when it comes to child welfare.”
Coash told The World-Herald: “The department wants to have social workers not just as investigators to go after bad guys. This will help them get back into social work — they want to help families. All stakeholders realize you need another option to help these families.”
The report on the Minnesota situation emphasized that the positive results from alternative response there didn’t happen automatically but were dependent on key ingredients: hard work by staff members, vision by state leaders and investments by the state government and nonprofits.
Coash says that before Nebraska shifts toward a more flexible approach, it needs to lay the groundwork by preparing the state HHS and nonprofits for the change. “We’ve learned from other states that you don’t institute alternative response on a system that’s not stable,” he said. “You don’t put this on top of a system that’s not ready for it.”
To allow adequate preparation, the Legislature may not hold floor debate on Coash’s bill until next year. The senator says, “I have every intent to push this all the way to the end, whether this year or next year.”
His push deserves support. Putting child welfare on this new course is a path Nebraska needs to take.