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Sower in full moon

The Sower atop the Nebraska Capitol appears against a full moon in 2006.

Last month’s closure of the girls Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Geneva once again put Nebraska’s child welfare system in the spotlight.

On the heels of that ongoing story, however, an annual report detailing children under the state’s care — whether in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems or a state-licensed facility — provides a bigger picture. And that broader perspective came this year with a sense of “uneasiness,” to borrow the word used in the headline of the Journal Star's report on this document.

Nebraska’s most vulnerable youth need a system that ensures their safety and well-being at critical times during their developmental years. Though the number of critical-incident reports will never fall to zero, the number of traumatic events reported — such as sexual assault and suicide attempts — remains largely unchanged.

Inspector General Julie Rogers investigated the deaths of four children connected to the system between July 1, 2018 and June 30 of this year, in addition to 52 suicide attempts (flat from the prior year) and 41 allegations of sexual abuse (four fewer), even though Nebraska has fewer state wards.

These troubling trends come at a time when the state has awarded the contract for child welfare services in Douglas and Sarpy counties to the lowest bidder, which proposed cutting the number of case managers in the area responsible for 40% of Nebraska’s caseload, and proposed eliminating most child welfare regulations.

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Doing things efficiently is laudable for government. But child welfare is one of those areas in which the state mustn’t skimp, given the importance of the work on its future.

To best support the children under the state’s care, those working in this vital field must receive adequate support, as well. High levels of employee churn and burnout – at play for challenging jobs in Geneva and elsewhere within the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services – ultimately trickle down to the children in the system.

To that end, DHHS’ decision not to accept Rogers’ recommendation to more fully expand trauma-informed support – assistance to those who suffer secondary trauma from working with families in crisis – beyond just frontline workers and supervisors seems like a missed opportunity.

Created in 2012 by the Nebraska Legislature as part of a package of reforms following a chaotic attempt at privatization and major problems within a “dysfunctional system that is difficult to navigate,” the office of inspector general for child welfare aims to address problems and identify improvements.

DHHS has made several important fixes in years past, and Rogers’ office will no doubt offer more suggestions in the years to come. But the state’s child welfare system – ranging from the teens in Geneva to the infants in child protective services – requires plenty of work moving forward.

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