National group takes aim at Nebraska child welfare

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March 12, 2012 - 7:00pm

A national advocacy group on Monday took Nebraska's troubled child welfare system to task.

The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform has long criticized Nebraska's child welfare system for removing children from the home and placing them in foster care at a rate far above the national average. According to the group, Nebraska is an "extreme outlier" among states, removing children "at a rate more than triple the national average."
 


Photo by Robyn Wisch, KVNO News

From left: Melanie Williams-Smotherman and her daughter, Family Advocacy Movement; Richard Wexler, NCCPR; James Holt, mental health practitioner; Mary Ann Borgeson, Douglas County Commissioner


Richard Wexler is the executive director of the group, which is based in Virginia. He traveled to Lincoln for a press conference at the Capitol.

"Now of course it's possible that Nebraska really is a cesspool of depravity with more than triple the child abuse of the nation as a whole," Wexler said. "But it's far more likely that thousands of children are having their lives destroyed every year by a take the child and run' approach to child welfare that leaves all children less safe."

Nebraska is required to investigate families suspected of abusing or neglecting their children. But Wexler said the definition of neglect encompasses inadequately feeding, housing or clothing those children. And, he said, impoverished families often struggle to provide those needs.

Wexler said the state should provide "wraparound services" to assist families who need help in those areas, instead of removing children.

Wexler was joined at the press conference by local advocates for families with children in foster care, along with a mental health practitioner who counsels families with children in the system. James Holt works with families in Omaha and Lincoln. He said, "Out of 15 years of doing this, I haven't seen a bad parent. That may sound ridiculous. But I have not seen a bad parent."

"I've seen bad circumstances that have caused parents who were not prepared to parent not to be able to take care of their children," Holt continued. "And believe me I've had cases where I believed myself that the child would be better served in a safer environment. But maybe one or two, not the drastic amount of cases that I deal with on a daily basis."

The coalition pointed to a series of reports by KVNO News that NET News aired in January, which highlighted families in the system who are working to get their children back home.

The Department of Health and Human Services released a statement Monday, saying it is "on the same page" as the coalition. Vicki Maca is an administrator with the Department of Health and Human Services and is in charge of the state's reform efforts. She said the goal of child welfare reform, which began with privatization in 2009, has always been to keep more children in their homes. "Is there more that we can do? Absolutely," she said. "But I think we're beginning to see some positive signs in regards to children in the custody of the state."

Nebraska lawmakers are currently debating a series of bills to move forward in child welfare, after privatization largely collapsed. Four private agencies dropped out of their contracts with the state, leaving just one private company as a key player in the system. But Wexler said lawmakers are simply rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.

"Privatization, per se, is the great irrelevancy in Nebraska child welfare, or in child welfare everywhere," Wexler said. "We compare and contrast systems all across the country. Some are heavily privatized, some aren't. There are a few good and a lot of bad systems in both categories. So it simply doesn't matter."

"Can you make privatization work for you along with other changes?" he said. "Sure."

Wexler used the state of Florida as an example where privatization has worked. But he said the reforms succeeded because the state provided incentives to those private agencies to keep more children at home.
 


 

Lincoln Sen. Kathy Campbell, Health and Human Services Committee

 


Lawmakers are in the final weeks of this year's legislative session, and it's unclear how many of the group's recommendations could be incorporated into bills on the floor. Senator Kathy Campbell, who chairs the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee was out of the office, as the Legislature is adjourned, and unavailable for comment.

Wexler said there are some bills advancing in the Legislature that could assist in the goal of keeping more children in the home. But he said the majority of bills are missing the point. He listed one proposal that has advanced, which would create a children's commission to recommend a systematic path forward.

"Just as private versus public makes no difference, separate children's agency, which was originally in that bill, versus children's agency as part of a larger agency doesn't make any difference," he said. "You don't need another committee. There have been tons of committees, commissions, obligatory blue ribbon panels." "All you really have to do is take a look at what the few good states are doing and bring those good ideas to Nebraska," he said.

The group issued a report with 25 recommendations, which include abolishing the Foster Care Review Board and applying for a waiver that would allow federal grant money to be used for services beside foster care.

The Coalition used numbers based on data from 2010 in its report, and Vicki Maca said the 2011 numbers, which should be released later this spring, will show the Department is making progress.

"The number of state wards has decreased, which would lead one to believe that the number of children in out-of-home care has also decreased," Maca said.

"Generally you don't see significant reductions in a short amount of time," she said. "But I am confident we are on the right track."

 

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