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Child Welfare’s Changing Front Door

In case you missed it, there’s some very good news coming from Nebraska’s child welfare system: fewer children are becoming state wards and we’re keeping more families together successfully.

Last week, we highlighted this good news, but with a promise to dig a little deeper into all of the changes in Nebraska’s child welfare system. Hopefully by looking at why we’re making progress and where there’s still room for improvement, Nebraska can continue it’s child welfare success.

While the story that most folks are talking about is the decline in wards, the front door of our child welfare system has been undergoing a huge change, too.

Although the number of calls to the child abuse hotline increased slightly from 2011 to 2012, the number of reports that were actually accepted for an assessment declined sharply, as did the number of children and youth found to be victims of maltreatment (see the charts below).

A decline in children being abused or neglected is a great thing!  But… we shouldn’t automatically assume that Nebraska’s kids were actually safer in 2012 than 2011. With 3,000 fewer accepted reports, there was a smaller number of cases investigated and assessed for child safety.

Undoubtedly, part of the reason for the decline in assessments is Nebraska’s adoption of a new, standard tool, called  Structured Decision Making (SDM).

The idea behind the use of  this uniform, evidence-based tool is that child welfare workers will make better and more consistent decisions about which families to bring into the child welfare system, what services to offer, and when to close a case. Studies from other states have shown that when SDM is implemented well and consistently, outcomes for kids and families do improve.

Keeping families together is wonderful and keeping them out of the child welfare system when it isn’t necessary is also important.

But, as we screen more families out of the child welfare system,  we should be asking ourselves whether they are getting the help and resources they need to keep their children safe and address whatever the reason was for bringing them to the attention of the child welfare system in the first place.

Nearly 1 in 5 Nebraska kids live in poverty, which is a significant risk factor for abuse or neglect. While families want to do their best for children, they may struggle to meet their children’s basic needs. When we think about children’s safety, permanency, and well-being, we can’t just think about the kids and families who are actually in our system, but also those we know may be struggling.


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