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Omaha World-Herald. March 20, 2014

Welcome alternative on child welfare

It’s no secret that Nebraska has made some big mistakes on child welfare in the past.

In 2009, the state leaped abruptly into privatizing the system, triggering tumult and confusion. Time and again, the executive branch and the Legislature have clashed over child welfare policy.

Nebraska in the past few years has made progress on some child welfare needs, though challenges remain. It’s encouraging now to see a sensible consensus for the state to begin exploring a new approach known as “alternative response.”

Alternative response aims in selected cases to help families in problem situations early on, using a less adversarial approach with parents before things escalate into turmoil.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services estimated last year that alternative response could be used in about 40 percent of the state’s child welfare cases, with the remaining portion being addressed through the traditional investigative approach.

Experience in other states has shown that if properly implemented, alternative response can help stabilize families and reduce the number of children taken into state custody.

This is why the federal government is giving permission to individual states to devote a share of their federal funding to that purpose - if the states put forward a well-developed proposal.

The Nebraska HHS received such permission last October, pending approval by the Nebraska Legislature this year. Legislative Bill 853, sponsored by Sen. Colby Coash, would give that go-ahead and has received first-round approval.

The Nebraska HHS has consulted with Nebraska nonprofits and developed a prudent path on this issue. Rather than leaping ahead without proper planning, the department would test the waters through pilot projects in five counties (Sarpy, Lancaster, Hall, Dodge and Scotts Bluff).

Researchers with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln would evaluate the results and report back in 2015.

Under alternative response, the state works with parents on a plan for moving forward. An interdisciplinary team would provide support services.

In cases where safety has been identified as a concern, the state would continue to use the traditional approach. There would be a formal investigation with the participation of law enforcement.

There are challenges that Nebraska leaders should address. Under alternative response, the child is not interviewed separately. But Nebraska nonprofits say such interviews have value.

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