- Associated Press - Sunday, May 25, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Two years after lawmakers began a major overhaul of Nebraska’s child welfare system, the number of state wards has fallen but challenges remain in caring for some of the youngest children who are taken from their homes.

State officials say the decline is driven by several factors, including a new assessment system that helps case managers decide whether children are at risk and should be taken from their homes. The system is designed to prevent arbitrary decision-making when state officials receive reports of child abuse or neglect.

Some juveniles accused of crimes were also moved to the state’s probation office, rather than the Department of Health and Human Services, where they are placed in local diversion programs to try to steer them away from criminal behavior.

Nebraska had more than 6,100 wards in its protection in March 2012, compared to nearly 4,500 last week. Although the number of children in state protection has dropped, the percentage who were placed in out-of-home care during that time climbed from nearly 71 percent to more than 75 percent.

Nebraska lawmakers began a major overhaul in 2012 in response to complaints from families and escalating costs after the state turned its case management duties over to private agencies. The transition cost millions more than expected and suffered from poor oversight and unmanageable caseloads for workers, which led to high turnover.

Staff morale at the time was low, caseloads were high and field workers weren’t consistently visiting all of the children who were in state care before the changes took effect, said Vicki Maca, deputy director of the state’s Children and Family Services division.

“We had a culture that really believed that kids were safer when they weren’t at home,” Maca said. “And that’s just not always true. Kids aren’t always safer when they’re removed. It’s generally best for kids to grow up and wake up in a bed that they know.”

Maca said the changes put a new focus on case workers visiting children in their homes more often, and documenting each encounter in detail to track their progress.

Department officials also worked to improve response times once they receive a report of child abuse or neglect from family members, doctors or school officials. The state hired nearly 150 case workers under a law that passed two years ago to address the complaints about workloads, and developed an award system to recognize employees who went beyond their normal duties.

Maca said the state still needs to develop services for children as young as 5 who are at risk of getting into trouble in the future, and it must improve its handling of young children traumatized by being removed from homes.

“We’re not there yet, and we still have work to do,” she said. “But we have a plan. And I have confidence that we’re going to get there.”

The decline in wards is also due to an increase in children who are receiving treatment without coming into the system under court supervision, said Gene Klein, executive director of Omaha-based Project Harmony, which helps abused and neglected children in eastern Nebraska.

Klein said many Omaha cases are now reviewed by a team of local service providers, prosecutors and medical staff, who decide what sort of treatment a child should receive. In cases where children are in danger, he said, the courts take charge.

“It’s much more of a community, team-based approach,” Klein said.

Despite the decline in wards, some advocates warn Nebraska still faces problems with its child welfare services - and even a one-day snapshot of state wards can prove misleading.

States can remove many children from their homes and still appear to have few wards if they only keep them for a short period of time, said Melanie Williams-Smotherman, executive director of the Omaha-based Family Advocacy Movement. At the same time, states that take fewer children but keep them longer may appear to be caring for more wards.

The number may also appear low because of children who turn 19 and “age out” of the system, rather than being placed in a permanent home.

Williams-Smotherman said Nebraska case workers need to take a non-adversarial approach when investigating abuse reports, which would give the state more leeway in dealing with family problems.

“Even if their home life isn’t great, the reality is that those young children only know their families. It’s a deep bond. And to be taken by strangers, too often for poverty reasons - it’s incredibly traumatic,” Williams-Smotherman said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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