A federal report shows Nebraska child welfare did not conform to any of seven outcomes, or expected improvements, for a high percentage of children.

The Department of Health and Human Services did conform to four of seven system factors that were evaluated, including its statewide information and case-review systems.

This was the third and reportedly the most-stringent Child and Family Services Review since 2002, and it covered all aspects of Nebraska’s system, from the involvement of police and the courts, to the providers of services to children and families across the state.

The review, released Thursday, was conducted by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.

Matt Wallen, director of Nebraska's Children and Family Services, who replaced Doug Weinberg on Aug. 4, said the review is not a pass-fail process. 

“This review really helps to inform us on the direction of where some of our strengths are, where some of our weaknesses are and how we can make those program improvements to get into conformance through their program improvement plan over the next couple of years," he said.

Fifty-seven federal reviewers in June analyzed 65 of about 5,500 open cases and interviewed more than 200 advocates, people involved and community groups about the performance of Nebraska’s child welfare system. 

The 65 cases — 40 foster care and 25 in-home — were from Douglas, Hall, and Platte/Colfax counties during the week of June 4. 

Areas of nonconformance and needed improvement in the child welfare system included:

* A lack of resources and services, especially in western Nebraska;

* The lack of timely filing of termination of parental rights petitions, delays in permanency hearings and periodic reviews;

* Challenges in appropriately assessing the needs of parents, especially fathers, providing services to meet parents’ needs, including the frequency and quality of child visits, and engaging parents in developing case plans; 

* Uneven practices in dealing with children who remained in their homes, and including all children in the home in safety and risk assessments;

* An insufficient array of appropriate services and service providers.

The report questioned whether services are being tailored for the needs of children and families, especially non-English-speaking families. Reviewers said translation services also needed to be examined for how well they assist families.

The strengths in Nebraska’s system included:

* A commitment in recent years to quality improvement by the division and a willingness to be transparent, identify needs, examine root causes behind the data, and work with people and groups outside the department to find solutions;

* Placing siblings together;

* Addressing the education needs of children;

* Training staff and foster and adoptive parents.

Thursday, a group met to begin identifying how the state can improve its services to children and families, Wallen said. It included judges, attorneys, parents, foster and adoptive parents, Native American tribes, child and domestic-abuse groups, the Inspector General for Child Welfare, advocacy organizations and more than 40 service providers.

The state has 90 days to complete a plan for improvement. Once the federal Children’s Bureau approves Nebraska’s plan, the state has two years to accomplish the improvements.

"At the end of the day it's about: Are we getting better outcomes for families? Are they getting the services they need? Are kids safe in their homes when it's safe to keep them in their homes? Do we have an effective foster care system that can serve as that intervention when it's necessary to remove kids?" Wallen said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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