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In January, Gov. Pete Ricketts told the Legislature in his State of the State address that a child welfare task force would be formed to get to the bottom of why the number of kids in out-of-home care in the state was increasing.

Parents using methamphetamine was one factor, and he wanted the task force to look at that disturbing trend, along with other contributing factors. 

After months of waiting to hear about whether the task force had been formed, and if so what it had accomplished, Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz wrote a letter June 13 to the state's Children and Family Services director, Matt Wallen. 

Since the end of the session in April, Bolz said she's heard from a significant number of professionals with concerns about the child welfare system.

Those concerns had to do with allowing families, in which a parent had an identified methamphetamine use, to get services voluntarily, rather than involve the courts. They were concerned about how those services were being provided and how kids were kept safe, Bolz said. 

"How are assessments made about which cases are appropriate for voluntary services," she asked Wallen.

They also told Bolz that some serious abuse and neglect cases were not being referred to a county attorney. And changes were made in provider contracts that streamline drop-in services, which are essential to identify when parents are not keeping children safe, she said. 

And Bolz had questions about the governor's new task force, its makeup, activities and progress to date. 

Bolz, who is a member of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee and serves on the Nebraska Children's Commission, asked for answers to her questions within five business days.

She got a reply July 3, along with a news release, with answers to some of her questions and information on what the task force has been doing. 

Wallen told Bolz improvements have been made within the division. Policies, practices and provider contracts have been updated to recognize that a drug test is only one factor of an assessment into allegations of child abuse or neglect, he said. A caseworker also would look at child safety and risk, and observe parents' behaviors and their willingness to participate in a safety plan and to accept voluntary services. 

If there was a safety concern and the family refused a safety plan or to get services voluntarily, then the county attorney would be asked to oversee the case. Removing the child by law enforcement could also be necessary, Wallen said in the letter. 

A positive drug test doesn't confirm there's child abuse or neglect and a negative drug test doesn't mean there's no safety threat, he said. Other factors could identify a possible substance-abuse problem that could then be assessed, and a drug test could be part of that, he told Bolz. 

The division is shifting its practice to be more family-centered, he said, to strengthen families "by treating potential risk factors," and reduce trauma on children. 

On drop-in services, Wallen said, if they are part of a case plan or court-ordered, they would be provided by department workers rather than by contracted providers. Judges told the department that drop-in services were inefficient and costly, he said. 

Wallen said that following the Structured Decision Making model will address safety concerns and reduce the time a family is separated. 

In response to questions from the Journal Star, the department identified the core members of the governor's task force as: Wallen; Don Arp, Center of Operational Excellence deputy director and process improvement expert; Ed Toner, state information technology expert; Gene Klein, Project Harmony; Don Winstead, Casey Family Programs consultant and child welfare finance expert; Katie Bass, Foster Care Review Office data analyst; and Bo Botelho, HHS chief operating officer and general counsel and performance-based procurement specialist. 

Arp is leading the task force, which has met weekly since February, CEO Courtney Phillips said in a news release. The meetings of the task force are not open to the public or the media. 

The task force has done in-depth assessment of practices and policies used to investigate child-abuse claims, the department said. The four goals that resulted are: Reduce the re-entry of children into the system, reduce their time in the system, increase reunifications of children and parents, and reduce caseworker turnover. 

In addition to goals, the task force has developed plans, initiatives and projects and has laid groundwork for success, the news release said. 

Health and Human Services spokeswoman Jennifer Brantley said the number of out-of-home placements has decreased by nearly 10 percent over the past year, with 357 fewer children in out-of-home placements and 544 fewer kids in the child welfare system. On July 11, 3,234 children were in out-of-home placements and 1,814 were placed in the home. 

When he announced the formation of the task force, Ricketts highlighted the concerns about parents' use of methamphetamine being a factor in one of every three removals of children from their homes. 

Bolz continues to have questions about how the task force is determining the root causes of meth-related child removals. She sent another letter July 9  asking for details on what the department does when a possible substance-abuse disorder is identified among parents. She also asked for details of the plan to ensure the safety and security of children at risk of abuse or neglect. 

The Legislature provided an additional $55.6 million for child welfare services in the current state budget, and senators should be able to get answers on what is being done for the families identified as having challenges, and how the department is doing a better job in keeping kids safe, she said. 

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

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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