LINCOLN — Nebraska continues making slow, steady progress in reducing the number of children under state oversight.
New data show the number of state wards has dropped 13.6 percent over nearly 15 months — from 6,121 children in early March 2012 to 5,284 as of July 15.
Thomas Pristow, director of the State Division of Children and Family Services, said the change represents progress for Nebraska’s child welfare system, which has undergone numerous upheavals over the past four years.
“We are still ‘righting the ship,’ and we have more to accomplish,” he said in a statement Thursday.
But Pristow called it “tremendously rewarding” to see the number of state wards declining. He said that means the state is providing the services that children and families need to address their problems.
“When there are strong family ties, children are safer and our state is stronger,” he said.
Children can become state wards because of abuse and neglect by their parents or because of their own violations of the law.
Some also become wards to get access to mental health services.
Pristow, who was hired in March 2012, has been dealing with a system left in turmoil by the failure of the state’s 2½-year experiment in privatizing the child welfare system.
The effort began in late 2009 with goals of improving care and reducing the numbers of children in out-of-home care.
By the end of February 2012, four of the five private agencies had lost or dropped their contracts, citing inadequate reimbursement from the state.
The goal of improving care for children went unrealized, and the state lost foster families and service providers.
The remaining private agency, the Omaha-based Nebraska Families Collaborative, manages cases in the Omaha area. State caseworkers oversee all other cases.
The data collected by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and reported Thursday include all cases in the state.
Pristow said the data show that the decline in the number of state wards has not come at the expense of child safety.
In December 2012 the rate of children who went back into foster care after going home to their families was 12.5 percent. As of the end of May the rate was down to 10.9 percent.
However, the proportion of children removed from their homes and those served at home remains unchanged. About 70 percent of state wards are in out-of-home care, the same as it has been for years.
Pristow credited hard work and new approaches for the progress seen so far.
Fully 98 percent of state wards are getting monthly visits from their caseworkers now, compared with less than half of state wards in 2011.
The state has been using an evidence-based, standardized method of assessing the risks facing children who are the subject of abuse and neglect reports.
Health and Human Services is using a quality improvement effort that collects data to pinpoint problem areas in casework.
In addition, the state has designated some weeks to focus on special issues.
In one, for example, the department reviewed all cases of children who had been living at home with their families for six months with no problems but who were still state wards.
The review found that better assessments could help the courts feel comfortable in closing out many of the cases.