Child Advocacy Groups Criticize Proposed Reform Measures in Nebraska

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This legislative session, Nebraska lawmakers are expected to sign a child welfare reform package that would ease caseloads for the state’s social workers as well as end privatized services in almost all of the state’s counties.

However, in an Associated Press story this week the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform said that the reform measures fall short. The advocacy group says they do not address the fact that Nebraska places children in foster care services at a rate double that of the national average, in addition to maintaining the nation’s highest proportion of children in foster care homes.

Richard Wexler, executive director of the coalition, told the AP that Nebraska’s child welfare system promotes a “take-the-child-and-run mentality,” which ultimately creates less safe environments for the state’s children.

“Not only does Nebraska’s obscene rate of removal do enormous harm to the children needlessly taken,” he said, “it also overloads caseworkers so they have even less time to find children in real danger.”

A recent National Coalition for Child Protection Reform report notes that in 2010, approximately 8 out of 1,000 children were placed in foster care within the state. The rate is easily twice the national average, the report said, which hovers at about 3.4 out of 1,000 across the country. Additionally, the report indicates discrepancies between the rates of white and minority children placed in foster care services, with African-American and Native-American children in Nebraska being removed from homes at a rate 3.4 and 6.8 percent higher than general population estimates.

According to Melanie Williams-Smotherman, Nebraska’s Family Advocacy Movement executive director, the state’s welfare offices are staffed by “career child savers” that are prone to using “safety laws” to place children in foster care.

“Their spirit is broken, their children have been harmed and alienated, and they have lost all necessary resources to remain stable and functioning,” she told the AP.

Vicki Maca, the head of Nebraska’s Division of Children and Family Services, defended the proposed reform measures, stating that the legislation’s “goal” is a reduction in the number of children placed under the state’s care.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services currently plans on applying for a waiver that would allow the state to use federal child welfare dollars on “in-home” services, such as counseling and substance abuse treatment. Many child advocates and lawmakers have urged officials to request the waiver immediately, as multiple states are in competition for the funding exemption.

As states are generally required to spend the majority of the federal funding on “out-of-home” child welfare expenditures, many critics say the allocation of federal dollars gives states a “financial incentive” to keep children in foster care services. Maca said that, right now, the state is looking at ways to “maximize” the monetary value of the waiver.

“We want a system that allows parents the opportunity to have access to services in their own community without state involvement,” Maca told the AP. “That is what our reform is all about.”

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