National group takes aim at Nebraska child welfare

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March 12th, 2012

Omaha, NE – A national advocacy group took aim at Nebraska’s child welfare system today.

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From left: Melanie Williams-Smotherman and her daughter, Family Advocacy Movement; Richard Wexler, NCCPR; James Holt, mental health practitioner; Mary Ann Borgeson, Douglas County Commissioner. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

The National Coalition for Child Protection Reform has long criticized Nebraska’s child welfare system for removing children from the home and placing them in foster care at a rate far above the national average. According to the group, Nebraska is an “extreme outlier” among states, removing children “at a rate more than triple the national average.”

Richard Wexler is the executive director of the group, which is based in Virginia. He traveled to Lincoln for a press conference at the Capitol.

“Now of course it’s possible that Nebraska really is a cesspool of depravity with more than triple the child abuse of the nation as a whole,” Wexler said. “But it’s far more likely that thousands of children are having their lives destroyed every year by a ‘take the child and run’ approach to child welfare that leaves all children less safe.”

Nebraska is required to investigate families suspected of abusing or neglecting their children. But Wexler said the definition of neglect encompasses inadequately feeding, housing or clothing those children. And, he said, impoverished families often struggle to provide those needs.

Wexler said the state should provide “wraparound services” to assist families who need help in those areas, instead of removing children.

Wexler was joined at the press conference by local advocates for families with children in foster care, along with a mental health practitioner who counsels families with children in the system. James Holt works with families in Omaha and Lincoln. He said, “Out of 15 years of doing this, I haven’t seen a bad parent. That may sound ridiculous. But I have not seen a bad parent.”

“I’ve seen bad circumstances that have caused parents who were not prepared to parent not to be able to take care of their children,” Holt continued. “And believe me I’ve had cases where I believed myself that the child would be better served in a safer environment. But maybe one or two, not the drastic amount of cases that I deal with on a daily basis.”

KVNO News aired a series of reports in January, which highlighted families in the system who are working to get their children back home. For more on those stories, click on the image above.

The Department of Health and Human Services released a statement Monday, saying it is “on the same page” as the coalition. Vicki Maca is an administrator with DHHS and is in charge of the state’s reform efforts. She said the goal of child welfare reform, which began with privatization in 2009, has always been to keep more children in their homes. “Is there more that we can do? Absolutely,” she said. “But I think we’re beginning to see some positive signs in regards to children in the custody of the state.”

Nebraska lawmakers are currently debating a series of bills to move forward in child welfare, after privatization largely collapsed. Four private agencies dropped out of their contracts with the state, leaving just one private company as a key player in the system. But Wexler said lawmakers are simply rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship.

“Privatization, per se, is the great irrelevancy in Nebraska child welfare, or in child welfare everywhere,” Wexler said. “We compare and contrast systems all across the country. Some are heavily privatized, some aren’t. There are a few good and a lot of bad systems in both categories. So it simply doesn’t matter.”

“Can you make privatization work for you along with other changes?” he said. “Sure.”

Wexler used the state of Florida as an example where privatization has worked. But he said the reforms succeeded because the state provided incentives to those private agencies to keep more children at home.

Lawmakers are in the final weeks of this year’s legislative session, and it’s unclear how many of the group’s recommendations could be incorporated into bills on the floor. Senator Kathy Campbell, who chairs the Legislature’s Health and Human Services committee was out of the office, as the Legislature is adjourned until Tuesday, and was unavailable for comment.

Wexler said there are some bills advancing in the Legislature that could assist in the goal of keeping more children in the home. But he said the majority of bills are missing the point. He listed one proposal that has advanced, which would create a children’s commission to recommend a systematic path forward.

“Just as private versus public makes no difference, separate children’s agency, which was originally in that bill, versus children’s agency as part of a larger agency doesn’t make any difference,” he said. “You don’t need another committee. There have been tons of committees, commissions, obligatory blue ribbon panels.”

“All you really have to do is take a look at what the few good states are doing and bring those good ideas to Nebraska,” he said.

The group issued a report with 25 recommendations, which include abolishing the Foster Care Review Board and applying for a waiver that would allow federal grant money to be used for services beside foster care.

The Coalition used numbers based on data from 2010 in its report, and Vicki Maca said the 2011 numbers, which should be released later this spring, will show the Department is making progress.

“The number of state wards has decreased, which would lead one to believe that the number of children in out-of-home care has also decreased,” Maca said.

“Generally you don’t see significant reductions in a short amount of time,” she said. “But I am confident we are on the right track.”

2 Responses

  1. Crystal Young says:

    Excellent article! It is time for a special session of Congress to completely redraw Nebraska foster care procedures. It is time for a one time fix not years of fine tuning a broken machine. The thousands of Nebraska families threatened by a bad system is inexcusable.

  2. Stephanie Morgan says:

    The NCCPR report on Nebraska’s child welfare system is a sobering wake-up call and I would encourage Nebraskans to read the report and not just the news coverage of it. (It can be read here: http://www.nccpr.org/nebraskagateway/fullreport062424.pdf) Now that I have read the full report I am astonished at Sen. Krist’s reaction in an Omaha World Herald story. Sen. Krist admitted that the NCCPR report is right about the problem, but wants families in Nebraska to give lawmakers time to “dissect it one piece at a time” meanwhile children in our state are being seriously injured by the system and all lawmakers can think of to do is create more commissions and study groups!

    I was encouraged this week when the Governor asked the right question this week in a radio interview with Nebraska Radio Network (http://nebraskaradionetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/reviewva.mp3). He said, “Why in this family-friendly state called Nebraska do twice as many kids come in to our child welfare system as any other state in America? We need to address that.” So the question now, Governor is: What are you going to do about it?

    What I’d like to see him do is veto the useless watered down child welfare legislation that’s going to make it to his desk and tell the legislature to go back to the drawing board! Maybe call a special session just to address child welfare! If he can call a special session for the Keystone pipeline then certainly it is more important to call a special session to save innocent children from the irreparable damage of having their families torn apart by Nebraska’s broken child welfare system.

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