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Group seeks transformational change to child welfare system

By Andrew Ozaki

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    OMAHA, Nebraska (KETV) — A new task force is hoping to come up with ideas to transform Nebraska’s child welfare system.

A state law passed in 2022 created the group, which includes all three branches of government and key stakeholders.

Their mission is to “reimagine” child and family well-being.

“Reimagining the way child welfare practice and financing is handled here in the state,” John Stephen said.

Stephen is the managing partner at the Stephen Group, a national organization hired by the workgroup to hold listening sessions with stakeholders across the state.

The forum in Lincoln on Wednesday was the final one.

“Listen to providers, to listen to foster homes, those that have lived experience,” Stephen said.

One of those stakeholders is Monika Gross.

She is the executive director of the Foster Care Review Office.

“It’s a good time, I think, to kind of revisit how we do child welfare and child and family well-being in the state of Nebraska,” Gross said.

She said that is because the state has resumed handling case management for abused and neglected kids in the Omaha-Metro from St. Francis Ministries, a private nonprofit organization.

And there is a new governor and a new Dept. of Human Services director.

“It gives us an opportunity to think differently about how we take care of children and families in our state,” Gross said.

The group has already come up with two-page list of themes:

• Lack of mental health and substance abuse services (especially in rural areas.)

• Need for a community-based prevention system.

• Build trust among all system players.

• Listen to families’ co-creation of plans of care.

• Value lived experience.

• Value peer support services.

• Enhance support for social determinants of health (housing, transportation, food…)

• Involve schools in system re-design.

• Technology enhancements needed to support caseworkers/interagency partners/providers.

• Address placement challenges, especially with high needs and older youth.

• Shared accountability.

• Enhance foster parent capacity.

• Structured and routine training for school system administrators/educators and mandatory reporters on alternative mandatory reporting/referral options.

• Prioritize focus on outcomes rather than outputs.

• Cultural/language gaps adversely impact family support.

• Invest in culturally appropriate/regionally equitable systems and services/need for more bilingual services, especially in rural areas of state.

• Broader community support, resources and involvement for high-risk and special ed children and biological/foster families. Alignment of intra-agency resources (e.g., Medicaid, CFS, Education, Housing, Behavior Health, DD, etc.)

• Workforce/turnover – Increase longevity, stability, decrease turnover, increase diversity of staff/better recruitment, support, professional development, training.

• Families kept together whenever safe to do so.

• Poverty and lack of resources should not be grounds for removal.

• Define key data and performance metrics across all systems and use them to drive innovation and change.

• Local prevention pathways to divert hotline calls are a critical strategy, but there will need to be the development of a referral structure, “warm line,” additional resources, need for creativity/flexibility on funding of these services and building the infrastructure to implement them.

• Improved coordination between tribal Child and Family agencies and the institutional system to foster better coordination of tribal children between the two systems

• Abuse/neglect reporting standards need reform-too easy to get families in the system over minor issues vs. helping mitigate reported issue.

Paige Piper of BravBe Child Advocacy Center said training and retention of caseworkers is a big issue.

“So much system knowledge is lost because we turn over caseworkers too fast,” Piper said.

She and others said prevention has to be a big part of the conversation.

“We have to break down this stigma of receiving any of these supporting services and the fear of DHHS coming in,” Rose Hood Buss of the HUB Central Access Point for Young Adults said.

“We have to take it and flip it from being a fearful situation to a supportive situation,” Hood Buss said.

One of the big obstacles to prevention and how to get services to families and kids without having to put them in the system.

“Making sure there’s safety in the front end, but that families are getting what they need in the community and then they eventually leave the system, child welfare system benefits,” Stephen said.

Stephen said Nebraska has some opportunity because it ranks low in leveraging federal dollars to its child welfare system.

“Believe there’s enough funding in the system, not just the way it’s spent and how, again, organizations work together to maximize that funding that’s available or to make sure that Nebraska is taken advantage of funding that is available,” Stephen said.

He said the bottom line is outcomes for kids and the state continues to remove about the same number of kids from homes it did 10 years ago.

“There are some states that are doing a lot there that are making dramatic improvements on the removals to foster care. So there’s no question you can do that,” Stephen said.

“This document is going to create the vision, the values, the beginning of the roadmap for the future,” Stephen said.

Gross said it’s going to require community ownership and some legislation to allow more families to be eligible to receive services.

“I’m hopeful at this point. I’m always hopeful because we have all the players in the room,” Gross said.

The task force or work group will meet Thursday to review all of the comments and begin working on a draft that stakeholders can review.

A final report should be completed Dec. 1 and presented to state lawmakers.

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