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Child welfare caseloads still too high, YRTC system too unstable in Nebraska, report finds

Child welfare caseloads still too high, YRTC system too unstable in Nebraska, report finds

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The eighth annual report on child welfare in Nebraska has found some improvements and a number of continuing issues for children and families in the state.

Inspector General for Child Welfare Jennifer Carter was recently appointed to the position and took the reins this month, replacing Julie Rogers, who became head of the Office of Public Counsel, or ombud, over the entire agency. 

Carter said the Department of Health and Human Services has not met the statutory caseload requirement for those caseworkers responsible for keeping mistreated children safe and delivering quality services.

In 2012, the Legislature passed a law creating a maximum caseload requirement. High caseloads contribute to worker burnout and turnover and are correlated to poorer outcomes for children and families, Carter said. 

In fiscal year 2019-20, caseload compliance statewide was at 80%, down from 92% the previous year. It was as low as 69.9% in December.

And there are still too many attempted suicides and suicides of youth who are involved in the system, she said. Also, complaints persist about children’s placement outside their homes, their well-being, initial assessments, permanency, case management and visitation.

More recent issues are the crises and changes in Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers, scattered in Kearney, Geneva and Lincoln, which are in a continuing state of flux.

Carter said there are concerns over the instability of the YRTC system and recommends the Department of Health and Human Services refrain from any additional changes it has previewed and suspend its most recent business plan to move the Juvenile Chemical Dependency Program at the Hastings Regional Center to Lincoln and establish a YRTC for girls at the Hastings Regional Center. 

The department, however, has said as recently as Monday that the plan is for the Hastings Regional Center male youth to move to Lincoln at the beginning of October.

The inspector general is also continuing to monitor the delivery of services to the Omaha service area, the only one with a private provider — St. Francis Ministries — to deliver case management for children in the system. 

St. Francis Ministries has been unable to satisfactorily meet the mandated caseload requirement, with only 41% of case managers within statutory guidelines, Carter said. 

The work of the Ombuds Office is determined by the intake information it receives. 

During the fiscal year starting July 1, 2019, through June 30, 2020, the inspector general's office received 403 total intakes comprised of 198 critical incident reports, 179 complaints, 19 requests for information and seven grievances and their findings from HHS.

Of the 198 critical incidents, the highest number in one category was 46 incident reports of sexual abuse. There were 25 suicide attempts in that fiscal year and 22 incidents of deaths. 

Of the 22 reported child deaths in FY 2019-2020, two had sufficient contact or involvement in the juvenile justice system to merit opening an investigation. Both youth were on juvenile probation.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought enormous challenges to families and those that serve them, Carter said. And hard decisions continue to be made throughout the child welfare systems to keep children and youth safe, while staying connected to their families.

"It cannot be overstated that these changes, no matter how well-intentioned, greatly affect communities, staff and the children and families served," Carter said. 

The inspector general conducts formal investigations of deaths and serious injuries of children in the state and monitors system issues. She regularly makes recommendations for system improvements and policy changes.

Within the system, Carter said, progress has been made with the establishment of noncourt-involved, or voluntary, case standards and the development of an informational brochure to be provided to families that clearly outlines the process and expectations.

Rogers said she has appreciated the open and helpful discussions with new Children and Family Services Director Stephanie Beasley.

“It has already led to improved policies that benefit children and families in Nebraska,” Rogers said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature

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