Progress on some scores, the need for improvements on others. That’s the mixed reaction Nebraskans can have to the new report on how the state’s child welfare system is doing.
On the positive side, the new quarterly report from the state’s Foster Care Review Office says the number of Nebraska children in out-of-home care has been declining as the state works to provide care in the home.
At the end of 2011, the number of Nebraska children in out-of-home care stood at 4,320. By April of this year, the number was 3,854.
That trend was reflected in Douglas and Sarpy Counties, served by a set of local nonprofits that are joined together as the Nebraska Families Collaborative. For NFC, the number of children in out-of-home care fell by more than 19 percent between May 2012 and April 2013, going from 1,967 to 1,579.
Other good news in the new report: From the end of 2012 to April 2013, the number of children in emergency shelters fell from 91 to 66, a 33 percent decline. This year, the shelters will begin placing particular emphasis on upfront assessments to provide each child individualized care as soon as possible.
As for NFC, on the positive side it increased staff and successfully met caseload requirements set by the state. It also met the goal for increased visits by its case managers with each child.
Major challenges remain, however. Nebraska is below the goals for finding permanent homes for children in a timely manner, the new report says. The state also needs to do better in reducing the number of children re-entering the system.
Efforts need to be stepped up to find placements for children of color, the report says. African-American children make up 6 percent of Nebraska’s population but account for 29 percent of children in out-of-home placements for two years or longer and 40 percent in care for three years or longer.
The turnover rate for caseworkers also is cited as a problem. While that issue shouldn’t be dismissed, it’s no surprise that Nebraska has seen such turnover, given that NFC has added more caseworkers and that Nebraska has gone through a major transition in returning child welfare services to state control in all parts of the state except Douglas and Sarpy Counties.
In fact, there will be continued churning this year as Nebraska makes a big change in its juvenile justice system, shifting responsibility for all 3,500 or so juvenile offenders from the Department of Health and Human Services to the state’s Office of Probation Administration.
Perhaps the major lesson to be learned is that after a period of upheaval and the current transformation of the juvenile justice system, what Nebraska’s child welfare system needs most now is stability. That way, it can build on its current improvements and focus on the big challenges that remain and must be remedied.