Nebraska’s child welfare personnel have difficult, complex obligations. They intervene in often tumultuous family situations. They strive to help more than 3,000 vulnerable children each day. A new state report describes current pluses and minuses in the system, pointing to important goals.

The most encouraging improvement is Nebraska’s progress in reducing the number of children removed from the home. Nebraska has long stood out for its troublingly high rate of such removals. Critics inside the state and outside have repeatedly pointed to this failure, rightly arguing that treatment in the home is most effective, if conditions are safe.

Recent years have brought major improvement on this score. The average number of Nebraska children in foster care children has fallen for two years straight: 4,135 per day in June 2017; 3,771 in June 2018; down to 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. This advancement is a credit 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.

At the same time, significant concerns remain, the Nebraska Foster Care Review Office says in its new annual report. Volunteers for the Review Office monitor the care of children removed from their homes.

Nebraska needs to do far better in finding permanent homes for children in out-of-home care, the Review Office says. For more than half of those children, the report says, “cases were stagnating and permanency is still far away.” For 27.4% of those children, “there was no progress toward the primary permanency goal, and for an additional 25.2%, progress was minimal.”

The report describes additional concerns: Too much turnover in caseworkers for children in out-of-home care and trial home placement. Too few children and teenagers attending their juvenile court hearings. Too few resources to prepare older children to transition out of foster care and into young adulthood.

In addition, the report says, “Juvenile Probation continues to have challenges across the state providing community-based services needed to prevent removals from the home, and creating transition plans for youth returning to their communities.”

The Review Office expressed concern that in-home programs receive no oversight from itself or the courts. The state HHS says reviews are performed by teams that include a county attorney, HHS supervisors and administrators. Reviews are also done by service providers, extended family, friends and others at family meetings.

Another concern is protecting children from sexual abuse. A year ago, Julie Rogers, the state inspector general for child welfare, reported that she received 45 reports of sexual abuse for children in state care during fiscal 2017-18. That was up from 29 the year before and 16 the year before that. Some of the children were wards of the state; others were in a state-run facility or a licensed, residential facility; and others were adopted or in foster care.

In the Omaha area, the state HHS has decided to change the private child welfare provider for Douglas and Sarpy Counties starting Jan. 1, barring court intervention stemming from a lawsuit. It’s vital that the transition from PromiseShip to St. Francis Ministries be achieved smoothly. St. Francis, headquartered in Salina, Kansas, currently serves more than 31,000 people through subsidiaries in Nebraska and six other states, plus two Central American countries.

A range of teams is in place to manage the transition, HHS says. Individual teams are focusing on specific needs such as case management, finances, contract management, information technology and communications. A team is going over individual cases, aiming to maintain continuity of care. The new contract will contain new child safety provisions and incentivize St. Francis to pursue innovative approaches recommended in studies of Nebraska’s child welfare system, HHS says.

This multi-pronged transition process must succeed. Child welfare cases are challenging enough without adding problems from an organizational change. The price of mishandling this changeover would be too high, for the children and for our community.

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