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Telling the whole child welfare story

At Voices for Children, we are committed to telling the whole story when it comes to Nebraska’s children and the systems that serve them. This isn’t an easy job and it’s especially tricky when it comes to the child welfare system.

Our child welfare system has a whole host of different actors, agencies, and policies. It’s incredibly complex and difficult to understand. In fact, it seems the only thing that is clear is that our child welfare system isn’t serving children and families well. How to fix it and what’s wrong – that’s much harder to establish.

For much of the last two years, the discussion amongst lawmakers, stakeholders, and advocates alike has been focused on privatization of child welfare services and case management. It’s been described as the key to improving child welfare and it’s been described as exactly what’s wrong with child welfare in Nebraska, responsible for instability in children and families lives.

The truth is it’s neither. Our child welfare system in Nebraska has been broken for a very long time. It’s been underfunded for a very long time. It hasn’t been transparent or accountable to stakeholders for a very long time. It’s been unintentionally harming too many children and families for a very long time. Privatization of services hasn’t had a chance to fix any of these problems because of all the implementation challenges due to a lack of planning, adequate funding, and utilization of best practices and lessons learned from other states. What privatization has done is attracted attention and turned a very bright spotlight on just how bad things are for Nebraska’s vulnerable and often forgotten children and families.

Last week a number of media stories featured Senators taking issue with another $1.8 million payment to a child welfare contractor. While they are absolutely right to be frustrated with the lack of planning and transparency with additional payments to contractors, these are more than anything an acknowledgment of just how much we’ve been literally short-changing our families and children for years. Ultimately, this is 1.8 million more dollars that will go to serve our most vulnerable, and that’s not a bad thing.

With many legislators calling this the “session of children” we need to take a step back, remember that our children’s futures are at stake.  We cannot afford to continue to react and respond quickly with short term solutions that potentially do more harm to children and families and don’t address the underlying issues, especially a lack of adequate and properly directed funding.

Our state’s most vulnerable children and families have been faced with a huge number of transitions and changes.  The question we should all ask ourselves as bills are introduced and more transitions are put forward is whether or not they contribute to stability and positive outcomes for Nebraska’s kids in both the short- and long-term. We appreciate all the work that the Health and Human Services Committee has done, but the verdict is still out on what the best next steps are for children, and what should be done with case management.

We need to have a clear picture of both the intended and unintended consequences of any action and how it will affect the kids we intend to help. It’s time for all of us – legislators, the Governor, department officials, providers, and advocates  –  to roll up our sleeves, find solutions, and most importantly, finance them.

Thank you to taking the time to share!


  1. REPLY
    Steph C says


    • REPLY
      Sarah says

      I appreciate all that you brought up Carolyn! If there is anything I can do to get this message out, I want to help in any way I can…Thanks for all you do!

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    Judy D says

    Cost shifting is the major problem. Thank you for opening the dialogue. There is more to this story. Before making a decision, research. It is complex.

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    Richard Wexler says

    It’s great to see someone trying to point out the extent to which the privatization debate has become a sideshow. There is no evidence that privatization per se makes child welfare better – or worse – and with the Titanic that is Nebraska child welfare sinking deeper and deeper every day, it’s enormously frustrating to see the legislature obsess over how to rearrange the deck chairs.

    I’m also a tax and spend liberal and proud of it. There’s nothing at which I’d rather see government “throw money” than child welfare.

    But the best available evidence, admittedly limited and old, indicates that Nebraska doesn’t underspend on child welfare, it *missepends* on child welfare.

    The most recent authoritative study of child welfare spending goes all the way back to 2006 data, but if you take those totals and divide by the number of impoverished children in each state, you find that Nebraska spent on child welfare at the 13th highest rate in the nation – a rate more than 60 percent *above* the national average. (I’d be glad to send you details and citations.)

    That’s because the great paradox of child welfare is that the worse the option for children, the more it costs. Safe, proven alternatives to foster homes cost less than foster homes which cost less than group homes which cost less than institutions.

    Since Nebraska tears apart families and holds children in foster care at one of the highest rates in the nation – and uses group homes and institutions at a rate well above average, of course the state is spending a fortune on child welfare and harming children in the process.

    Yes, part of this is the federal government’s fault (and that’s why the most important single recommendation from the recent legislative report is that Nebraska seek a waiver from federal funding rules) but state priorities also play a crucial role.

    Spending more would be nice. Spending smarter is vital

    Richard Wexler
    Executive Director
    National Coalition for Child Protection Reform

  4. REPLY
    Crystal says

    Nicely said! Thank you!

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    Teresa Campbell says

    Thanks for the unbiased whole story…it is refreshing. I agree the issues are complex. It involves every system that serves our children and their families. Each one plays a part in the success or struggles as a whole. It is easy to throw stones at the house with the light on but lets look at those houses hiding in the shadows. Reform is only go to work if we are open to looking at every system and every stakeholder. We must make long lasting changes. The private contractors have made improvements even though those numbers haven’t been published in the papers. This takes time and to pull the plug for something that isn’t established to be better is concerning to me. I see every day the improvements the private contractors make to our children and families. Lets not just go back to what we know because we are afraid of giving change the time and resources it needs to succeed. our families deserve better…

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      Theresa says

      Great comments. I agree. Thank you!

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    Mark B says

    Good post Carolyn, and good comment Judy.

    Agree that it’s been broken for a long time. As a foster parent who has operated pre and post reform, I definitely feel we are moving in the right directiion. Night and day difference from our perspective. Really felt like we were on an island when it was just us working for the state.

    The real danger now is that we might legislate away any progress we’ve made, as a knee-jerk reaction to economic pressures. We knew when this started that it was going to be a tough transition. There is real evidence that we’re making headway. I hope our legislators will be informed and objective prior to any vote.

  7. REPLY
    Alisia says

    Carolyn you are my new idol!

    Thank you for assisting in clearing up the rose colored glasses Nebrasken’s have been looking through.

    Tax payer’s now have a full picture of the situation. Hopefully our legislators we voted into office will take the time to listen to the needs and open minded to solutions that can be used to address needs fo Nebraska children and families.

    Thank you for your continued dedication to Nebraska children and families!!

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    Sarah says

    I appreciate all that you brought up Carolyn! If there is anything I can do to get this message out, I want to help in any way I can…Thanks for all you do!

  9. REPLY
    Theresa says

    I appreciate your thoughts Carolyn.

    For child welfare, Nebraska has been ranked at the bottom of the country for 30 years. The system is broken and needs to be fixed. Handing case management back to the state would be a huge step backward. There has been mismanagement, but not on the part of the current contractors who have more experience than the leadership of DHHS.

    The way financing is done does need to change. The current contractors are aware of best practices from other states. In the long run, a change now will have a long term benefit for the state and it’s children.

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