Foster care reform may be getting on track

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February 24th, 2011

Lincoln, NE – Child welfare reform in Nebraska has taken a lot of hits since it began in a year and a half ago. Three of the five original private agencies have terminated their contracts, reverting control of about 1,300 state wards back to the government. The latest step in the troubled process: transitioning case management duties from state workers to private contractors.

Nebraska's foster care system has gone through several years of upheaval, but the state says the system's moving in the right direction (Photo courtesy Nebraska Foster Care Review Board)

It’s a step that worries child and family advocates like Dawn Rockey, executive director of Court Appointed Special Advocates for Lancaster County. “You’re talking about children’s lives here, and to keep moving ahead in a direction that is uncertain at best seemed to us not to be the way to go. It also wasn’t the way to go to keep the same system in place that we had years ago. There did need to be changes.”

The transition was necessary, said Todd Reckling, director of the Division of Children and Family Services within DHHS. Now, he said, families know exactly who to contact with questions and concerns.

“So it was confusing to the family, who do I talk to, the state worker or the lead contractor, and it was also utilizing our resources for the same type of activity.”

Private child-welfare agency KVC-Nebraska oversees about 4,000 children in the southeast part of the state. The agency’s president, Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, said the private contractors had pushed for case management duties early in the reform process.

“We saw it as an opportunity to really start implementing our program models that we had originally bid on,” she said. “So we were excited to begin really reforming the system.”

David Nuell, executive director for the Nebraska Families Collaborative, said the transition has gone pretty smoothly. The collaborative oversees about 1,000 children in the eastern service area.

“There’s still ongoing training that we’re working on,” he said, “so we’re talking to judges and families and other people who are related to the cases to get feedback.” “For the most part it’s gone really well.”

But Rockey with CASA said she still sees the same issues as when the state was in control of case management; including inaccurate reports, poor communication and untrained staff.

Additionally, the state is still in control of child welfare for about 80 percent of the Nebraska’s landmass. And advocacy groups continue to call for more transparency and oversight.

But Rockey said there is potential, citing increased efforts at communication from the state and private contractors.

Despite the setbacks, both Nuell and Gasca-Gonzalez say they’re looking forward to the year ahead.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction,” said Gasca-Gonzalez. “I think there’s a lot of people with a lot of concerns. And a year from now, I think people will say this is the best thing Nebraska did for child welfare.”

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