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Nebraska Child Welfare: State of Disarray

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Introduction

Picture this, someone walks into a home through the front door and instantly an aroma of trash and moldy food hits their nostrils. They look around to see trash bags stacked by the door; dirty, encrusted dishes sitting in the sink; and kids crawling around on an unkept floor. Two parents yelling and screaming at one another. Obscenities are heard from each end of the house. Now, add a child into this picture…

Children hold a soft spot in all our hearts. Imagine this person that walked into this house, if they had children. This person would not want their children to live in this type of environment on a daily basis. There are kids in the foster care system that live in these conditions day in and day out. Something must be done. Although there are many other factors that can go into a situation like this, such as parental neglect, substance abuse and other factors. Those are not the issues being addressed in this paper. What is being addressed in this paper is the current state of the Child Welfare system in the state of Nebraska.

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Preserving the Relationship

In 2009, The State of Nebraska made a transition from the state providing services for Child Welfare to five private companies providing those services. While privatization [MOU2] was an attempt at improving the state of the Child Welfare in Nebraska, it was all for naught. There must be a change in focus of the government from taking the child out of the home right away to working with the family towards preserving the relationship that is already there. We must do this, so our children do not suffer in terms of their mental, physical, and emotional health.

This would decrease the caseload a caseworker can take on at once, so more of a focus can be put on those cases they do have which will decrease their workload [MOU3]. Caseload is the number of cases assigned to an individual worker in a period while workload is the amount of work required to manage those cases and bring them to some sort of resolution. There are many factors that go into determining workload. Those factors are where the child lives (with family, foster care or group home), the number of children involved in the case, the complexity of the case and what phase the case is in.

There has been an increasing number of people getting hired then quitting within the Child Welfare area of the Nebraska Health and Human Services in the past 10 years (Knapp) [MOU4]. The cause of this turnover is the high caseload that is put on the caseworkers. Often, the caseworkers hired by the respective agency were felt they inadequately trained and had too big of a workload. 60% reported they had between two and four caseworkers, and 9% said they had between five and 10 caseworkers (O’Hanlon).

The Effects of Separation From the Family

More than 500,000 children are in foster care in the United States (AAP). When children are separated from their families, it impacts the child in a way the common person might not see right away. Kids must have a stable environment in their early years of their life. Brain growth is most active during “the early years” of childhood, which is generally classified as birth to eight years of age(AAP). The living conditions stated in the introduction are not ideal for any child to be brought up in. Those negative conditions listed can very well impair brain development. Some of the areas that can suffer are how children cope with stress, their emotions and their personality traits.

There is no way to predict how any given event will affect a child. Those early experiences can and will cause every kid to react differently. If there are any inconsistencies or absences with the caregiver, it will affect the neural networks of the child that aides in the stress regulation as well as the benefit they will gain from healthy and caring support (Fritz). For someone to develop into a psychologically healthy human being, as a child they must have an adult in their life with the following qualities: nurturing; protective; and encourages an environment where trust and security are paramount. For a human being to develop at an optimal rate, those qualities must be met on a consistent basis over a period. If the child has suffered from any sort of event in the past, an adult with those same qualities will aid in helping the child overcome the stressors that arise.

When a child does respond to a stressor, the “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in. All human beings have this mechanism wired into them. This mechanism kicks in whenever we are put in a stressful situation. This happens by the body releasing hormones, this release of hormones increases heart rate, blood pressure and the rate at which one breathes. This mechanism will do one of two things. The fight side of it can cause the child to show aggressive behaviors, be withdrawn or throw a temper tantrum. The flight side will appear to others that the child has a failure to thrive, not feed well or freeze. Again, not every child will have these same signs and symptoms or react the same way to a given stressor (Young Diggers).

Two Kinds of Care

There are two kinds of care a child can be placed in when it comes to foster care. Kinship Care and Congregate Care. Kinship care refers to a caregiver that is an adult, who is included in the child’s life. Generally, when people think of kin, it refers to family in the child’s life but has been broadened to include all adults in the child’s life. Kinship care is often arranged without any assistance from the government and is thought to minimize any sort of negative impact that a congregate care situation would bring about (Fritz). Congregate care refers to any placement of a child in a nonfamily placement, meaning without their family. Some examples of congregate care are emergency shelters, group homes, private agencies and residential treatment centers.

There has been a national push to decrease the use of congregate caregivers. “Between 2004 and 2013, the use of these caregivers decreased by 37% nationwide” (Fritz). The use of kinship caregivers is often the most preferred method but isn’t always the smoothest of processes. These caregivers are not “professional” caregivers in terms of having the resources and knowledge that a congregate caregiver has such as the laws, benefits they might be approved for and services that are available to them.

Workforce Workgroup Report

Money. It is what makes the world go around. In March of 2015, the Nebraska Children’s Commission Workforce Workgroup developed a report that included recommendations to help retain and recruit child welfare caseworkers. For each new caseworker that is hired, it costs between $30,000 to $36,000 to train them (Workforce Workgroup Report). It was found that Nebraska was below the national average in terms of salary.

This workgroup recommended that Nebraska caseworkers be brought up to that national average as well as differentials made available. Some that were brought up were performance and educational incentives. Educational incentives would include a differential for those who have achieved higher education as well as loan forgiveness programs. Performance incentives could include an increased differential when caseworkers hit certain marks or obtain key competencies in their casework. Some competencies could include the ability to speak multiple languages, maintaining high-risk caseloads and being able to work in specific populations. Another recommendation made in the workforce report was that social workers should be offered more advancement within their department and if that promotion was obtained, the individual should also receive increased pay.

The workgroup bases these recommendations off the idea that the increase in pay and the career opportunities will increase the professionalism as well as the expectations of front line workers employees is a critical step to improving the outcomes for the children in the child welfare system (Workforce Workgroup Report).

Another key recommendation made was the training and the work support that child welfare workers receive while on the job. To be an effective child welfare worker, one must have multiple skills and competencies outside of their knowledge of the system. Some of the skills include time management, workload management, effective communication strategies, critical thinking skills and well as supporting others’ efforts.

The job of a child welfare caseworker is not an entry level position. Most companies will only hire you as a social worker if you have a master’s or a bachelor’s degree. There are two classifications of social workers in the State of Nebraska. Certified Social Worker and Certified Master Social Worker. Certified Social Worker is the title for professionals that have obtained their bachelor’s or master’s degree but have no additional training. Certified Master Social Workers have experience after completing their degree. The average pay for a Certified Social Worker is 16.64 per hour while Certified Master Social Worker accrues 22.22 per hour (Durr, 69).

Privatization

Money is also a major factor into the attempted privatization of child welfare services. Nebraska has a history of investing far less the amount of money into family preservation than they do into removing children from their respective homes and placing them into a foster home (Hornsby). Nebraska has attempted to reform the child welfare by “privatizing” the services over the past 10 years to other companies or non-profits. This privatization was not successful in any way.

Nebraska has not been the only state to attempt this. Kansas and Florida are two of the other states to attempt statewide privatization. They, like Nebraska spent more than they had planned in each of their respective budgets. Privatization is the change of government or public services to a company or a non-profit organization. This attempt of privatization stemmed from an assumption that said private companies can help save the government money. The push for the privatization of these services was not funded as it should have been, rushed, and not near as planned out as it needed to be. A failed attempt to shift the burden from state workers. [MOU5] [AH6]

This failed attempt only ended up causing more problems. The [MOU7] state must pay back more than $20 million of federal foster care funds because it could not document how the money was spent by the private contractors (Stoddard). During the privatization [MOU8] phase, the state overspent the budgeted amount by 50 million dollars, with all that extra money going towards private companies. In 2009, there were five different companies that the State of Nebraska chose to contract out to. Four out of those five companies had either lost their contract or chose to end the contract due to how the state of Nebraska managed the money. By the start of 2012, there was only one company left: Nebraska Families Collaborative.

In February of 2015, a comparison of performance was completed. This comparison compared NFC to the Nebraska DHHS workers in four key areas: compliance with laws and policy, family engagement, outcomes and cost. In terms of compliance, it was found that DHHS tended to have much more detail in terms of times, dates, and locations of visits. 20% of the NFC plans were missing this information. When it came to family engagement, there was no evidence that showed either side did it better than the other. Outcomes had the same result. There was no evidence to support the idea that privatization decreased the number of children in the foster care system. The last area compared was cost and this comparison showed no savings in any areas. “Privatization promised better outcomes at a lower cost, and that has not happened. It was perhaps a worthy experiment, but it has failed” (AFSCME, 7).

Conclusion

In closing, the government must change their approach when it comes to child welfare. They must focus on keeping the child in the home and preserving the relationship that is already built instead of taking the child out of the home and placing them into a foster home. Research shows when you take a child out of the home it impacts them in a way you may not see right away or at all if you don’t know what to look for. Both kinds of foster care placement have their pros and cons, but the use of kinship is preferred. The training, educational and financial aspects of this issue have some problems that are improving, but still need worked out. The state of Nebraska has attempted to take the focus off placing children in foster homes right away in the past with the privatization of the child welfare services, but as stated above was a failed attempt.

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