As the Legislature continues to work on child welfare reform, its Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony Thursday at the first of two hearings on preventing unnecessary placement of children in out-of-home care.
The high per-capita numbers of children in the child welfare system, compared with other states, is the next problem the Legislature wants to tackle.
The relationship between poverty and entry into the child welfare system is complex and often overlooked, said Becky Gould, Nebraska Appleseed executive director. And that relationship is key to keeping children with their families, rather than unnecessarily in the system.
Eighteen percent of Nebraska kids live in poverty, Gould said. And 58 percent of children entering the system do so because parents do not provide for their basic physical, medical, educational or emotional needs.
Public assistance programs need to be strengthened, she said, including options of increasing the amount of aid, improving access or strengthening eligibility for those programs.
Nebraska, she said, should consider increasing the payment rate of Aid to Dependent Children. The amount of assistance, she said, has not been adjusted since the 1980s. And one in four children in poverty don't get food stamps, in some cases because parents aren't aware they can get them.
Stronger screening and referral methods, and extending the time parents can spend in treatment programs can help with the problems they have with substance abuse. Thirty percent of children who enter the system do so because their parents are struggling with substance abuse.
Gould said the state could make better investments in prevention and early intervention rather than the expensive services needed later after problems get a foothold.
In the first quarterly report to the Legislature by the Foster Care Review Office, interim director Linda Cox said that that during 2011, reviews found there may have been little or no reasonable efforts made to keep nearly 100 children in their own homes with services.
The report also showed that getting behavioral and mental health treatment for kids remained a challenge.
Observations by reviewers show the system is placing children with relatives inconsistently, Cox said. Some relatives who appear to be appropriate apparently are not considered as placements, she said, while others with significant issues of their own seem to get almost "automatic" placement.
And there are issues with voluntary placements, in which courts are not involved. Services may not be available for families, and there are inconsistencies in the length of time a child is in out-of-home care without involving the courts, she said.
Cox said in one case, a mother had made no attempt to have contact with her child for nearly six months, and it remained a non-court case even though the mother effectively had abandoned the child. In another case, a child had been in "voluntary" care about a year and a half, with no resolution in sight.
"From conversations with HHS officials," she said, "it appears they are looking at providing more oversight of these types of cases and trying to develop clear criteria for when it is appropriate for a case to be non-court."
The child advocacy centers also will address those issues on a regional level, she said.
A national team of experts brought in by Nebraska Appleseed for an afternoon forum also addressed the committee on improving the child welfare system. They offered an overview on how to determine the needs of children and families, how to identify needed programs and determining how to pay for those programs.
In the past couple of legislative sessions, senators have addressed child welfare reform, including a study and lengthy report on problems facing reform.
Omaha Sen. Bob Krist said what was presented to the committee Thursday showed that all the changes in the world can be made, but without money, knowing where to spend the money and how much money was spent, the system will have issues.
But the state is headed in the right direction now, he said.