The writer is the retired founding director of Voices for Children in Nebraska. With 35 years of experience in child advocacy and child welfare; she also served for six months of 2012 as interim director of the Foster Care Review Board.
A little over three years ago, the State Department of Health and Human Services launched a major effort that called for private agencies (lead agencies) to deliver child welfare services in Nebraska.
At the time, I and many others in the child care field believed this reform plan had not been thoroughly developed or piloted. Many of us also questioned whether the DHHS was providing adequate funding to the private agencies that received state contracts.
Within months, the first lead agency filed for bankruptcy. Since then, there has been constant change as all but one of the initial seven contracts were canceled.
Sadly, Nebraska has had little opportunity to learn lessons from these failings because sufficient, consistent, comparable data have never been collected in order to measure the effect of change or do a cost-benefit analysis.
Fortunately, the Health and Human Services Committee of the Legislature took a serious look at child welfare reform last year and got involved through several pieces of legislation in matters of governance, evaluation and oversight. Legislators made an effort to stabilize the system’s culture of unpredictability and change by defining the work of the remaining lead agency — Nebraska Families Collaborative (NFC) — as a pilot project and requiring numerous evaluations and assessments.
A legislative hearing before the HHS Committee on Jan. 16 began to present a simpler, clearer picture of a previously complicated and somewhat muddled situation, and a strong case was made for continuing the NFC pilot project.
Nebraska Families Collaborative, an Omaha-based partnership, was formed four years ago specifically to deliver child welfare services in a new way. NFC serves the Douglas County-Sarpy County area, which is responsible for 40 percent of the children in Nebraska’s child welfare system.
The NFC’s highly respected partner agencies include Boys Town, Child Saving Institute, Heartland Family Service, Omni Behavioral Health and Nebraska Family Support Network, which collectively have hundreds of years of experience serving vulnerable children and families.
On Wednesday, NFC will have an opportunity to present data and performance measures to the HHS Committee. But some important data in support of NFC’s progress have already been offered. At the Jan. 16 hearing before the HHS Committee, an independent evaluator hired by the DHHS described preliminary improvements, including stabilization of the NFC work force, reduction in caseload size and reduction in the number of children requiring foster care placement.
Even with the major, numerous and sometimes unpredictable changes that have occurred during the three years of the NFC/DHHS contract, such significant improvements are beginning to be documented, making a strong case for allowing more time for this effort to be stabilized and fairly tested.
Healthy children and families are sustained by a supportive community. They need to know who they can depend on for necessary support, and that the person or program they relied on yesterday will still be there tomorrow, next week and next year.
Now is the time to adequately support the NFC pilot effort, prevent any further unnecessary change and measure the results. This is our opportunity, as a state, to regain the trust of our most vulnerable children and families and serve as a model for the rest of the nation.