The writer is executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska.
Reflecting on the progress made for Nebraska kids and families in the child welfare system over the past few years, it is clear that our state has a lot to celebrate:
Fewer children are victims of abuse or neglect. More families are receiving services on a voluntary basis to keep their children safe in their own homes. Fewer kids are being made state wards.
Over the past few years, different branches of government, local nonprofits and concerned communities have come together to make sure Nebraska protects and nurtures all of our children.
These groups have crafted legislation, taken administrative action and forged new partnerships to strengthen families. They are making sure we respond thoughtfully and swiftly when abuse or neglect happens, so that all of Nebraska’s kids can grow up in safe, loving homes. Their leadership is paying off, and things are getting better for our children and our state.
All of this success, however, doesn’t mean that our work is complete. There is more our state can and must do to ensure that our child welfare system reflects Nebraska’s family values.
In 2014, it is Voices for Children’s hope that we can continue to make progress for our kids and families by building on what is working well in our child welfare system and fixing what isn’t working. Here are a couple of steps we think the Legislature needs to take this session for our kids and families:
>> Ensure that our system is stable. It wasn’t too long ago that Nebraska’s child welfare system was in turmoil. Nebraska’s poorly financed statewide privatization effort meant caseworker turnover, loss of services in many parts of the state and widespread confusion. Over the past 18 months, child welfare case management has been stable and our state has been able to focus on the underlying issues that matter most to kids and families. Voices for Children believes that the Legislature and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services should continue the pilot project in the eastern part of the state to help continue this stability for children and families.
>> Carefully implement Alternative Response. When it comes to kids and families in our child welfare system, one size doesn’t fit all. Last year, legislation was introduced to create more than one pathway to handle the cases of children and families at risk of abuse and neglect.
It is critical that the Legislature take action this year to allow Nebraska to pilot this new approach for which we have already received federal approval and flexible funding. Alternative Response will help our child welfare system better partner with families and build services in rural and urban communities to keep kids safe.
>> Expand and improve kinship care. When children can’t safely stay with their parents, the next best choice is being placed with relatives or other adults that they know, love and trust. This past year, the Legislature took important action to make sure children have this option open to them. More work remains to be done across the state to identify and place children with family members and give these placements the necessary training and support. We also must offer kinship placements the option and support to become permanent, loving homes to children who cannot be reunified their parents.
>> Work to improve and support permanency. Foster care is meant to be a temporary situation. Unfortunately, too many kids in Nebraska stay in foster care for long periods of time or are reunified with their families only to re-enter the system at a later date. Nebraska needs to do more to provide aftercare and support to reunified families. We also need to remove barriers to finding safe, loving homes for children who cannot safely return home.
These are just a few of the many policies that Nebraska needs to focus on in the coming months. Underlying these important initiatives, we must continue our work to build high-quality services across our state, find solutions to the disparate outcomes of children and families of color and infuse our child welfare system with family-centered practice.
Our state — private providers, public agencies, legislators and community members — has made tremendous strides toward a better child welfare system, safer kids and stronger families and communities. If we maintain our commitment and collaboration, Nebraska can build a state that reflects our values, where all kids are safe and have a chance to reach their potential.