Fewer children being removed from Nebraska homes

Nebraska's State Capitol was the scene of a public hearing on child welfare last week. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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November 16, 2018 - 6:45am

The number of children being removed from their homes in Nebraska because of abuse and neglect is going down. Officials welcome the trend, but some say it’s too early to say if the overall situation is getting better.


The numbers tell part of the story: on July 1, 2017, Nebraska had just over 3,600 children in out-of-home care. A year later, that figure was just over 3,250 – nearly 10 percent fewer.

“What we’re doing is working to engage families and better understand what families need, trying to meet their needs as a family without doing the out-of-home placement when it’s safe to do so,” said Matt Wallen, who took over as head of the state Department of Health and Human Services Division of Children and Family Services last August.

Matt Wallen (Photo courtesy NDHHS)

Bill Stanton, a consultant to the state with the national Casey Family Programs organization, says the change in Nebraska is in line with what’s happening around the country.

“There are studies out there that show that just the fact of taking a child away from …a parent causes tremendous trauma to that child. And I think when you look at trends nationally, children do better when they are actually in their homes.”

Wallen gives an example of a situation in which a caseworker encounters a child living in a home that’s an absolute mess, with fast food bags all over and no food in the refrigerator. He describes how his division might have reacted previously.

“Before we would have come in, we would have said, ‘Oh my god, this isn’t right, let’s get the kid removed, put him in the foster care system,' and then say, ‘Alright, mom and dad, it’s up to you, you’ve gotta try to figure out how you’re going to get this situation cleaned up,’” he said.

Now, he says, a different approach would be tried.

“What we would do is come in and say, ‘We’re not quite sure this is a safe living situation for this child. Maybe we can put services in place, help ‘em get the home cleaned up and then do some skill-building services for the family to say this is how we keep a neat home, this is how we keep dishes clean, these are some of the essentials you need to have in your refrigerator, can we work with you on developing these practices so we can keep your child home with you?’ Then we’ll do weekly checks with them and see how things are going and see that they’re meeting those requirements,” Wallen said.

By some measures, the decrease in out-of-home placements has been even more dramatic than the year-to-year comparison suggests. Kim Hawekotte, executive director of the Foster Care Review Office, says this July, the number of children entering foster care was 45 percent lower than the previous July. At a public hearing last week, Hawekotte urged caution about interpreting those figures.

“I’d like to sit here and say that that is because of an improved system. I do believe we’re on the way to an improved system. And I know you’ve heard me talk for the last two, three years that we have too many children in out-of-home care, and I’ve been pounding the table saying, ‘There’s too many, there’s too many.’ So this is a good thing. But I do think we have to monitor and see what is happening and how it’s being handled,” she said.

Hawekotte says her office is seeking more information on the reasons for the decline in numbers. At the same hearing, Brian Essen of the Nebraska Alliance of Family and Children Service Providers, a group of private contractors, expressed concern.

“My concern is the potentially needless exposure of children to abuse and neglect, in the name quite frankly, of improved statistics. The department has given various reasons for the decline in cases, and while we agree with the philosophy of keeping children in their home, this change has taken place very quickly, and it’s unclear if this plan is not successful, what’s ‘Plan B?’” Essen said.

Wallen says his division is doing what it can to keep families together, but if it can’t, it still takes children out of their homes.

“If we can’t put a service in or if we can’t develop a safety plan and assure safety, then we’ll go to removal. And we’ll craft a foster care intervention and then get services in place to either reunify or look for a permanent option,” Wallen said.

With new federal legislation in place and voter approval of Medicaid expansion, more changes may yet be in store for child welfare in Nebraska.

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