Last week, the Department of Health and Human Services released new numbers on significant changes underway in Nebraska’s child welfare system.
Over the past few years a number of reform efforts, both administrative and legislative, have been enacted to better serve Nebraska’s children and families. The new numbers show that these reform efforts seem to be paying off – the number of state wards (children who are in the state’s custody, and usually removed from their homes) has declined significantly over the past two years.
Just why is this decline happening? A closer look at the data gives us some insight:
– A changing front door: DHHS has implemented a new screening tool that has significantly reduced the number of allegations of child abuse and neglect that Nebraska investigates.
– A new way to access services: Children and families are accessing the services they need to stay safe and together without court involvement and usually without removal from the home. These “non-court” or “voluntary” cases have grown substantially in number, while the number of children entering the child welfare system as state wards has declined.
– Substantial juvenile justice changes: Instead of youth becoming state wards to access services when they get in trouble with the law, they are now able to access services through Probation – allowing their families to stay more involved.
This is all definitely good news, but it certainly doesn’t mean that our reform work is finished. In fact, much of this data suggests we have more to do!
With fewer families coming into the child welfare system, we need to build more robust prevention and early intervention services so that families get what they need before abuse and neglect ever occurs.
Access to non-court services remains uneven across Nebraska. We need to do more to make sure families can access robust and voluntary services no matter where they live in our state.
Youth on probation are still court-involved and still frequently placed out of the home (often in detention or institutions). Nebraska can do more to divert youth from the juvenile justice system and reduce our inappropriate reliance on out-of-home care for those youth who do need to be in the system.
Finally, although the reduction in state wards is admirable, children and families of color remain overrepresented in the child welfare system, especially when it comes to court involvement. Nebraska must do more to ensure that our children and families of color are able to access needed services through less intrusive pathways as well.
If we maintain our commitment to reforming our juvenile justice and child welfare systems, we can continue to achieve better outcomes for our children, families, and our whole state.