LINCOLN — The number of Nebraska foster children declined significantly over the past year, according to a new state report.

The Foster Care Review Office’s latest annual report showed an 8.8 percent decrease in state wards in out-of-home care during the 12 months ending in June.

But the drop follows two years of increases in foster care numbers. In June, the number of foster children averaged 3,773 per day. That’s down from the 4,123 daily average in June 2017, but higher than the 3,145 children in foster care on June 30, 2015.

Kim Hawekotte, the Review Office’s executive director, called the trend “encouraging” but said there’s not enough information yet to show whether the recent decline reflects better care for children.

“It could be wonderful,” she said. “We just can’t tell you.”

The report attributed part of the decrease to a concerted effort by child welfare officials to find permanent homes for children who had been in foster care for 2 years or longer. Hawekotte commended the Department of Health and Human Services for that effort.

More families getting child welfare services voluntarily, without court involvement, appears to account for another part of the decrease, the report said. That could be beneficial for children by sparing them the trauma of being taken out of their homes.

But Hawekotte said it’s not clear whether those families are getting all the services they need or whether the voluntary services are keeping children safe.

There is no oversight entity, similar to the Review Office, for voluntary child welfare cases. The report recommends that lawmakers set up some type of oversight system, outside of HHS, for those cases.

Matt Litt, an HHS spokesman, called the decline a positive development for families and communities and a testament to the work of child welfare staff.

“There is lower turnover of (child welfare) specialists, and they have smaller caseloads, which results in the opportunity to engage and better understand and strengthen families in their homes, when it is safe to do so,” he said.

The report shows little progress on perennial concerns, such as multiple caseworker changes for children, multiple placement changes, children being removed from home multiple times and little to no progress being made in resolving cases.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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