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Child welfare system explores changes for 2013

Monday, October 8, 2012

LINCOLN -- Nebraska's child welfare system might face another major change by the summer of 2013, continuing the overhaul of the system begun by the Legislature last spring.

The Legislature's Health and Human Services committee held a hearing on Friday morning to explore changes to the way children enter the foster care system, how reports of child abuse are screened and investigated and how that can contribute to the number of children in foster care.

Sens. Colby Coash and Kathy Campbell, both of Lincoln, sponsored the resolutions discussed in the hearing. Their goal is to reduce the number of children who enter the system.

"Once the child is in the system, it makes it hard to get those families back together," Coash said.

Caren Kaplan, founder of Innovations in Child Welfare, testified during the hearing. She, among others, suggested Nebraska switch to a differential response plan. Usually, after each case of child neglect or abuse is reported, there is a police-like investigation to identify the victim and the perpetrator. But, according to Kaplan, this doesn't fit each situation.

"A family who needs help with behavior is not the same as a family who can't explain a baby's head trauma," Kaplan said.

If the child is at a high risk of abuse or neglect, the child can still be taken out of the home.

But the differential response approach stresses keeping families together. Social workers would assess a family's strengths and needs and help them work through their problems, Kaplan said. This way, the child can stay at home with his or her parents and doesn't have to enter the foster care system.

Under the differential response approach, however, families also could refuse the assessment and ask for an investigation instead.

Kaplan said with this system the child's safety is never compromised.

Thomas Pristow, the state's director of children and family services, said the social workers he works with want to interact with families. He added that the time social workers spend with families will wane as the situation starts to improve.

Recently, the Department of Health and Human Services closed 309 cases of children who were still in the foster care system, but living at home for more than 60 days. Now, there are 1,800 in-home cases where those children are still considered wards of the state. Pristow wants to change that.

"We need to get the state out of their lives," Pristow said.

Pristow said he hopes to start the differential response system in the summer of 2013, but it will take some legislative changes to make that happen.

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