LINCOLN — While the number of children in foster care has fallen, the outcomes for those kids is not improving, according to the annual report by the Nebraska Foster Care Review Office, released Wednesday.
The report recommended that the state improve training and retention of state caseworkers who deal with abused and neglected children, increase services for families to avoid out-of-home placements, and seek better data to drive decisions on care and placements.
The report said that as of Dec. 31, 2012, there were 3,892 children in Nebraska in foster care, a decrease of 10 percent. But several statistical measures of their care failed to show any improvement.
Kim Hawekotte, who became executive director of the office in January, said there are still too many children who stay too long in the system, and too many children who are bounced from foster home to foster home.
The report indicated that more than half the children in foster care had four or more placements, which was a 5 percent increase over 2011, and that one in four foster children had been in the system for at least half their lives.
Another concern, according to State Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, is that children who are removed a second time from their homes tend to stay in the foster care system longer, which may indicate that services to help reunite families are inadequate or that families are being reunited too soon.
Overall, the senator said, the system is still recovering from the failed effort to privatize child welfare services statewide, an effort that reduced the services available, particularly in the central and western portions of the state. “There is no magic, overnight solution here. It takes time to recover from that,” said Campbell, chairwoman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.
On the positive side, both Campbell and Hawekotte said they believe that those involved in the foster care system, from the courts to service providers and the Department of Health and Human Services, are working more closely together for a common goal.
“In the past, it was more fragmented,” Hawekotte said. “Now everyone is at the table saying we need to work together.”
The report also recommended the continuation of a program in the Omaha area called the Barriers to Permanency Project. The program looks at children who have been in out-of-home care continuously for more than two years and attempts to identify why a permanent placement hasn’t been found. Hawekotte said the program is an effort to determine, with better data, what is working and what isn’t.
The Legislature two years ago dissolved the old Foster Care Review Board and created the new office that Hawekotte leads. It is an independent agency that reviews the care given to children who are removed from homes by the HHS department because of abuse or neglect.
Earlier, in 2009, the state launched an experiment to privatize the child welfare system. But the contractors hired said they were being inadequately funded, and four of the five that were hired either quit or were dropped from the program. Caseworker turnover was high and some foster parents left, and the rate of children entering foster care was not reduced.
The lone remaining private contractor, the Omaha-based Nebraska Families Collaborative, manages cases in the metropolitan area. State caseworkers oversee all other cases.