LINCOLN — Efforts to keep Nebraska children safe without taking them from their families have gotten a big boost from the federal government.
Federal officials have granted the state flexibility in using up to $153 million of federal foster care funds over the next five years. Nebraska is one of only eight states given such approval this year.
Thomas Pristow, director of children and family services within the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said Thursday that the money is to be used to try out a new approach to dealing with child abuse and neglect.
Called “differential response” or “alternative response,” the approach aims to help struggling families in a less adversarial fashion and before they get into crisis.
Pristow said winning the federal approval was a major step toward remaking Nebraska's child welfare system.
But state officials have several hurdles to overcome before they can move forward to test differential response, including persuading skeptics that the state can carry it out properly.
If the approach works as it has in other states, it would mean fewer Nebraska children in danger and fewer children needing to be pulled from their homes.
“For kids and families, this is the biggest win that I could think of,” said Vicki Maca, deputy director of protection and safety.
But first, state law would have to be changed to allow the new approach. State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, who introduced a bill this year on differential response, said he doesn't know if Nebraska is ready to move forward with the new approach.
He said Thursday that he will push his bill next year only if all parties can work together.
“People are very nervous about it,” he said. “I'm frankly gun-shy about big changes at HHS because they never seem to go the way we planned.”
Coash said he is hearing from skeptics, many of whom are looking at the state's crisis-ridden effort to privatize case management of child welfare cases.
Pristow said he is aware of the concerns and is working with child welfare providers, advocacy groups and other parties to undertake the changes carefully.
Sarah Forrest, with Voices for Children in Nebraska, said the federal funding flexibility offers Nebraska an “exciting opportunity” to improve its child welfare system.
“One of the nice things about (it) is it allows you to innovate carefully,” she said.
Differential response would give child welfare workers two paths to follow when a report of child abuse or neglect comes in.
In the traditional path, families are investigated to determine whether abuse or neglect occurred and to identify perpetrators and victims.
Services are provided if the allegations are substantiated, and a child welfare case is opened. Perpetrators are put on the state's central registry. Many cases are referred to juvenile court, although a growing number of families agree to services voluntarily and do not go to court.
In the alternative approach, child welfare workers would partner with families to figure out ways to keep the family together and children safe.
Together, workers and families decide what services may be needed. There is no investigation, and families are free to reject help without penalty. No one is put on the central registry.
Maca said state officials are working with advocacy groups, child welfare providers and others to determine which cases are appropriate for an alternative response.
She estimated that about 40 percent of reports now investigated for abuse and neglect could be handled with the new approach.
Last year, workers investigated 12,015 reports of child abuse and neglect and found evidence to substantiate the allegations in 2,723 of them.
The state's plan is to try differential response in five counties initially, drawing on some of the $153 million, Pristow said. The pilots likely would get underway next October, if the Legislature approves.
In those counties, the new approach would be offered to half of the families who might qualify for it. The rest would be handled in the traditional way.
Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln would evaluate the results.
Pristow said the evaluation would be used to determine what direction Nebraska goes with differential response.
State officials hope the new approach would mean fewer children coming into state custody.
Nebraska ranks among the top states for removing children from their homes, even though 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.
The $153 million represents the amount of federal money Nebraska would get over the next five years to pay for foster care for low-income children. Along with launching differential response, the state plans to develop results-based contracts with foster care agencies. Such contracts would allow the state to track the success of programs and replicate those with the best results, Pristow said.
State officials also plan to use some of the federal dollars for additional mental health and health care services for state wards and to expand assistance for relatives who become guardians. Pristow said he also hopes to expand child abuse and neglect prevention services.