Too many kids find their way into Nebraska's child welfare system -- it's been said over and over in the past year.

On Friday, the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee continued to gather testimony on how other states keep their numbers lower and how Nebraska can follow their lead.

Interim studies suggested by Lincoln Sens. Colby Coash and Kathy Campbell are examining screening, assessment and investigations of reports of child abuse and neglect, and how the current process contributes to a higher rate of out-of-home care. 

The state spent the past two years focusing on how to support families once they are in the child welfare system, Coash said. Now it's time to look at how to keep families together and reduce the trauma for kids.

Caren Kaplan, an expert in child welfare policy and practice, endorsed a method of addressing child welfare cases called "differential response," which allows for more than the traditional investigation.

Nebraska's reliance on the traditional investigative response often results in families being shuffled to the courts, case workers and out-of-home care. With alternative approaches, families could get support to resolve issues putting kids at risk without bringing them into the system.

Differential responses can engage parents, the extended family and community service providers in a less adversarial manner, she said. And through assessment, rather than investigation, parents do not end up on the state's child abuse registry. 

Kaplan told the committee, which included Coash from the Judiciary Committee, that since the 1970s, states have used the investigation approach for allegations of maltreatment of children, although only a small percentage involve serious abuse such as broken bones, concussions, deliberate burns, abandonment and starvation. 

Over time, child neglect cases resulting from poverty-related issues of inadequate food and clothing, poor hygiene, unclean homes and improper supervision have become the largest proportion of cases.

In 2010, 96.5 percent of Nebraska child welfare cases involved neglect, she said. The national average is 75 percent. Kaplan said she had never seen a percentage of neglect cases higher than Nebraska's.

Kaplan said families that come to the attention of the state have unique histories, circumstances, strengths, needs and challenges. Differential response allows child protection systems to respond in diverse ways, she said.

"What is most important is that safety is not compromised through this approach," she said.

Thomas Pristow, director of the division of children and family services in the Department of Health and Human Services, told the committee he expects to implement differential response in the summer of 2013.

That response would be used for a targeted and clearly defined population of families when there's no indication an investigative response is needed, he said.

The Legislature is looking at putting the differentiated response method into state law, Coash said.

The number of state wards as of Oct. 1 stood at 5,812, down 309 from the 6,121 of six months ago.

Pristow said in the past six months, the state has reduced the number of children in the child welfare system in part by focusing on children who have been in their homes as state wards for more than 60 days.

When the department began to look at this, about 1,800 state wards were living safely at home, some for hundreds of days, some for thousands of days, Pristow said. The state was able to vacate custody in a number of those cases.

"We're not done with that yet. We're going to continue to focus on that," he said. "There is no reason for us to maintain that type of long-term relationship if there is no safety issue."

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