Nebraska state officials are exploring a new approach in handling child welfare cases, and they’re going about it the right way, with careful planning and coordination.
The goal is to help families in problem situations early on, before things escalate into turmoil. The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 40 percent of reports now investigated for abuse or neglect could be handled with the new approach.
With the new strategy, Nebraska should have increased opportunities to stabilize families and reduce the number of children removed from their homes and made wards of the state.
Called “differential response” or “alternative response,” the strategy aims to help struggling families in a less adversarial fashion before they get into crisis.
Under such an approach, the state and parents would work together on a plan for moving forward. An interdisciplinary team would provide support services.
Experience in other states has shown that this strategy can produce positive results, provided there is proper planning, coordination and program funding. This would be a welcome improvement for Nebraska, which has long been noted for its high removal rate of children in crisis situations.
Nebraska has been making progress. About 5,200 children were in state custody in July, down from 6,100 in March 2012.
Gene Klein, executive director of Project Harmony, an Omaha-based nonprofit with extensive experience in Nebraska child welfare issues, says the new strategy, if properly implemented, could make a positive difference.
He told The World-Herald: “Other states that have implemented the alternative response model have found that if they are intervening at an early stage and the children are safe, they can avoid out-of-home placement or more intrusive action.”
HHS, to its credit, is moving prudently and consulting with nonprofit agencies rather than leaping to start things too quickly.
The department aims to launch pilot projects in five Nebraska counties and do evaluations to see which aspects worked well and which didn’t. Only then would decisions be made on statewide implementation.
HHS emphasizes that child safety remains the paramount concern. So, in cases where concern has arisen about safety, HHS (and in the Omaha area, the nonprofit Nebraska Families Collaborative) will continue to use the traditional approach, conducting a formal investigation with the involvement of law enforcement.
The new approach is coming about because HHS has received permission from the federal government for greater flexibility in using up to $153 million in federal foster care funds.
A sign of the strength of the state’s application is the fact that only eight states were given such a waiver this year, said State Sen. Kathy Campbell, chairwoman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
Campbell says HHS has devoted commendable focus to this initiative. Next year, it will be up to the Legislature to give the go-ahead to the department to proceed with the new strategy.
Lawmakers and Nebraska nonprofits are right to say that while alternative response has merit, it’s crucial that Nebraska address various challenges if the new strategy is to work effectively. For example, under alternative response the child is not interviewed separately. But many Nebraska nonprofit groups say that separate interviews with the child are important and often helpful.
Experience from Missouri shows that Nebraska will need to identify, early on, the services appropriate to needs — specific counseling services, perhaps, or help with transportation or medical conditions — and make sure they’ll be available. Providers, in turn, need reasonable assurance that funds will be available to pay for services.
Under alternative response, no formal report is filed, but it will be vital for Nebraska to provide adequate oversight and accountability for the handling of cases.
That’s a lot to tackle and sort out, but HHS has struck the right note by signaling its willingness to discuss a variety of issues with providers.
The steps so far are encouraging. If Nebraskans take the time and work collaboratively, there’s a good chance the state can move its child welfare system in a healthy direction.
That would be good news for thousands of vulnerable children.