Progress, but with more to be done.
That’s the situation in Nebraska five years after the safe-haven crisis of 2008.
Nebraska lawmakers originally passed legislation that allowed parents to leave children of any age at hospitals without fear of prosecution. Over a 10-week period, 36 children (some from out of state) were dropped off at Nebraska hospitals.
Most of the young people involved were teenagers or pre-teens with serious mental health or behavioral problems.
That unexpected surge triggered nationwide news coverage and led to a special legislative session in which Nebraska lawmakers amended the law, limiting it to infants in the first month of life.
The situation put a spotlight on a major problem not just in Nebraska but also across the nation: inadequate services for families in crisis.
In a high percentage of cases, parents were desperate to cope with children and teenagers suffering from complex and sometimes severe mental health challenges.
How has Nebraska done in responding to the safe-haven crisis since 2008?
The main positive so far is that Nebraska has set up a system — a state helpline at 1-888-866-8660 and associated services — that generally has a high level of satisfaction in guiding families toward services and keeping them from falling through the cracks.
A tremendous amount of hard work and dedication has been put in by state legislators, the state Department of Health and Human Services and nonprofits to right that ship.
As reporting by The World-Herald’s Martha Stoddard recently detailed, since 2010 more than 10,000 families have made more than 14,400 calls to the helpline. Nearly 70 percent of families reported that they received significant help.
Another effort is the “peer navigator” program, by which an adult with family experience in working with Nebraska’s behavioral health system serves as a guide for incoming families. The peer navigators have worked with more than 400 families, all of whom said the process was positive.
As a result of the legislation, the state is working to boost the number of behavioral health professionals in rural areas and to expand mental health services for elementary-age children.
Legislation was approved last year to boost mental health services for children across the state through greater use of telecommunications links.
The main negative, and it’s a big one, is that Nebraska’s mental health treatment capacity still falls short of meeting the need. This shortfall has left a significant number of families frustrated.
Another result is that a considerable number of cases that should be handled by other programs are pushed into Nebraska’s child welfare system to be addressed, adding to its burdens.
The problems were worsened by the way HHS handled the privatization of Nebraska’s child welfare system several years ago, leading many private providers to drop out amid the tumult.
As for the future, Nebraska should continue working to strengthen the capacity of Nebraska’s behavioral health system. For some needs, that could mean increased spending; for others, more effective and cooperative delivery of services. A significant number of families remain in need.
The safe-haven crisis proved embarrassing for Nebraska, and the state has done much to address the problem. But we still have far to go.