Child advocates air concerns

Friday, March 23, 2007

The state should take local conditions such as time and distance into account when it comes to funding services for Southwest Nebraska, child and family advocates told State Sen. Mark Christensen at a special meeting on Friday.

Representing 17 agencies in the area that focus on the well being of children and families, the Child Advocacy Team named their top concerns as mental health issues, the foster care system, state funding and the condition of the Nebraska Health and Human Services System.

Families often have to relinquish parental control in order for their children to receive help for mental health issues, said Sue Beebe of Mid-Nebraska Head Start.

Also mentioned was the lack of support for families in times of mental health crisis, as most problems don't occur between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., they said.

The foster care system in Nebraska is in need of a major overhaul, members said, citing a lack of support for foster parents. Another issue they mentioned is when foster children are returned to their family of origin and problems in the family have not been addressed. Some kind of education is needed for the original family, such as parenting skills, before the child is returned.

Although Nebraska has the highest percentage of children in foster care, this can be looked at a positive thing, as more kids are being removed from unsafe environments, one member said.

As state funding is provided on a per capita basis, sparsely populated areas do not get the same kind of services as they do in metropolitan areas.

"A child in Southwest Nebraska deserves the same services as a child in Omaha," said Dennis Berry, principal of Central Elementary and McCook Junior High. A new formula is needed which factors in time and distance so that it reflects the measure of workload and not just "windshield" time -- time spent traveling between cases.

The way the state currently funds programs can be inefficient and excessive, several members stated. One example given was a family needing $150 to fix a car, but the state paying for taxi instead, costing about $1,000 a month.

"This is not a good use of our tax dollars," said Kathy Haas of the Family Resource Center.

Changes also are needed in the Nebraska Health and Human Services System, which seems to discourage people from going back to work.

Beebe sees families suffer who are working and paying for child care medical services, while others who receive benefits from HHS end up with more money in their pockets.

Benefits should be structured so those who are working toward self sufficiency aren't penalized, she said.

Still, members acknowledged that HHS case workers are overworked and spread out too thin.

"We know they have a tough job," said Becky Nielsen of Lutheran Family Services.

Those attending the meeting and the agency they represented were Kathy Haas, Family Resource Center, Linda Smith, Red Willow County Court, Cathy McDowell, Court Appointed Special Advocate, Judge Cloyd Clark, Red Willow County Court, Janeen Miller, Serenity Counseling Services, Stacy Spector, TeamMates Mentoring, Dennis Berry, McCook Public Schools, Mary K. Warner, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Educator, Linda Baumbach, McCook Schools grades 4-8, Chris Berry, Michelle Orton and Cathy Bell, CEDARS Southwest Youth Services, Nicki Banzhaf and Sue Beebe, Mid-Nebraska Head Start, Lauren Cuellar, Domestic Abuse/Sexual Assault Services, Pam Ochsner, McCook Schools grades 6-8, Becky Nielsen, Lutheran Family Services, George Young, ESU 15, Carolyn Klimper, McCook Schools ELL K-12 and Bruce McDowell, husband of Cathy McDowell.

The Child Advocacy Team began as a networking agency in 1975 and serves families and children with a variety of programs. Recent projects include assisting with the skate park effort and compiling a youth activities directory.

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