Nearly every person and agency watching over Nebraska's child welfare system can agree on one thing.
Children are better off when they can remain in their family homes when help is needed, and when it is safe. Only children who aren't safe should be removed and placed in out-of-home care, at least until things can be improved at home.
You hear it all the time, from the Department of Health and Human Services, child advocates and those overseeing child welfare in the Legislature and in courtrooms.
Numbers of Nebraska kids in out-of-home care have dropped steadily in the past two years. The Nebraska Foster Care Review Office reports that from June 2018 to June 2019, the number of state wards decreased 10%, following a nearly 9% drop the previous fiscal year.
In the department's southeast service area, which includes Lincoln, the decline has been 16%.
While the department is reducing its reliance on out-of-home care, it's using more non-court solutions, which may allow a family to work with the department and avoid the traditional court process and its oversight.
When a caseworker has determined there is a safety risk, the department can choose to informally connect parents with services and supports to improve their ability to protect their children. Kids could be placed with parents, relatives or family friends who are assigned a safety plan.
"It's interesting, because you may hear that foster care is being reduced, but in some ways it's just not. It's more hidden," said Sarah Helvey, child welfare attorney for Nebraska Appleseed.
As of Wednesday, the department reported 949 non-court cases and 3,763 involving courts. Of those, 3,166 children were in out-of-home placements.
That compares with July 1, 2018, when 1,107 were non-court cases, and 4,023 involved the courts, with 3,259 children in out-of-home placements.
The Nebraska Foster Care Review Office annual report said the population decrease is explained by fewer children entering foster care, beginning in the fall of 2017. A lower percentage of abuse and neglect cases reported to Child Protective Services were accepted for assessment and a higher number of families were served through in-home, non-court services.
Advocates and agencies report concern and frustration about their ability to get information about kids involved in these non-court and voluntary cases.
Kim Hawekotte, executive director of the Foster Care Review Office, said it is unclear if those families are faring better, because her office does not have authority to provide oversight when courts are not involved. And there is no other independent oversight, which is essential to ensuring safety for Nebraska’s most vulnerable children.
In a report to the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee last month, Hawekotte said her office learned in the summer of 2018 the department was using so-called "approved informal living arrangements" for some non-court and voluntary cases.
And it has been difficult, at best, to track these children.
In reviewing incomplete and sometimes inaccurate data on the cases, the Foster Care Review Office found some children were moved between several relatives multiple times. Several had returned to their parents' care. And in some cases, not all siblings in a placement were recorded in a computer tracking system.
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The review office knows of about 156 children from 99 families who are in these informal living arrangements, Hawekotte said.
The office is "very concerned," she said, about the number of children not reported.
From six months of reviews of the children the office knows about, she said, it found a lack of cooperation by parents in the voluntary cases. Of 30 mothers reviewed, 18 were either minimally or not at all engaged with the services provided by the state. It was the same for six of six fathers.
Safety in these living arrangements is also a serious concern, she said. Of 34 families reviewed in August receiving services, 19 were assessed to be high-risk and 12 very-high risk. And with just the slightest progress, she said, cases move quickly toward reunification, sometimes as quick as a few weeks.
In some cases, provided services are not sufficient to support sobriety, with a lack of drug testing by the department and reliance on the parents' word, she said. Eighty-four percent of children were placed because of parents' drug use; the most common drug used was methamphetamine.
Hawekotte also reported concerns about the lack of due process, legal support and advice to parents. Informal placements do not follow the same rigorous standards as foster care placements. There is a lack of financial support and training.
Helvey said informal caregivers are not licensed and background checks may be inconsistent. Some relatives and kinship caregivers, who have a preexisting relationship with the children, may live in high poverty themselves.
Department of Health and Human Services CEO Dannette Smith sent a letter, rather than testify in person, to Sen. Sara Howard, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, as her response to a legislative hearing on non-court involved cases in the child welfare system.
Smith explained the use of what the department calls its alternative response approach to abuse and neglect allegations, which has been used statewide since October 2018. This approach recognizes that families' needs and strengths vary and require different responses, she said.
As of July 1, the department had used alternative response in approximately 453 of 1,084 non-court cases.
A frequent critic of Nebraska child welfare, Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, wrote about Nebraska in a Wednesday blog on the coalition's website.
Wexler said that just when it looked as if Nebraska was improving its high rate of taking children out of their homes, it appears the state is engaging in what he and others call hidden foster care. Child protective services coerce families into surrendering their children voluntarily, when in fact there's usually nothing voluntary about it, he said.
Other states do it, too, and while federal regulations require reporting these entries into the foster care system, he said, typically states don't report them.
Kinship care is still foster care, he said, albeit better than stranger care.
"But such placements are too easy to abuse," he said, because they deprive families of minimal due process protections. And they are too easy to hide.
"Because now, we don't know if Nebraska made progress in dealing with its obscene rate of removal, or just found a way to sweep it under the rug," Wexler said.