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A new federal law gives an appropriate directive to state governments in regard to foster care. States, the Families First law says, must strive to keep families intact rather than removing children from the home.

It’s a sensible principle of particular relevance for Nebraska. The state’s child welfare system has stood out for many years for removing children from the home at a far higher rate than the national average.

Nebraska fortunately has made progress on this score in recent years. The average number of Nebraska children in foster care has fallen for two years straight: 4,135 per day in June 2017; 3,771 in June 2018; and 3,389 in June this year. That’s a decrease of 10% over the past year and a fall of almost 20% over two years. Most of those removed from their parents are placed with relatives or friends.

Credit for this improvement goes to the state Department of Health and Human Services, which provides child welfare services in 91 counties, and to PromiseShip, the private provider that currently serves Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

State HHS officials aim to apply for Families First funds to provide practical, preventive supports for families and reduce the need for removal of the child, The World-Herald’s Martha Stoddard reports. The additional federal funds would strengthen mental health and substance abuse treatment for parents, for example, and help relatives who take in a child in applying for services.

If a child is removed, the federal law requires that the state must maintain family connections and limit placements in group homes.

Child welfare work is inherently complicated and challenging, and the recent annual report from the Nebraska Foster Care Review Office describes various concerns that need to be addressed. Some examples:

» Nebraska needs to do far better in finding permanent homes for children in out-of-home care. For 27.4% of those children, “there was no progress toward the primary permanency goal, and for an additional 25.2%, progress was minimal.”

» There is too much turnover in caseworkers for children in out-of-home care and trial home placement.

» Too few children and teenagers attend their juvenile court hearings.

» Nebraska has too few resources to prepare older children to transition out of foster care and into young adulthood.

» Juvenile Probation has challenges in providing community-based services to prevent removals from the home and in creating transition plans for youths returning to their communities.

The Families First approach and funding should help Nebraska address many of these challenges by boosting the available supports for families. Nebraska should do all it can to use these funds for maximum benefit to vulnerable children and their families.

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