Lincoln – The number of state wards has declined by 309 in Nebraska since March, according to Thomas Pristow, director of Children and Family Services in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
He attributed the decrease to two areas of focus: a new assessment model used to initially assess the risk facing children reported to CFS; and returning custody to parents whose children have been safely living at home.
"The new model and its assessments are called ‘Structured Decision Making,' and it helps identify the needs of children so DHHS can more effectively prioritize areas of concern and improve permanency outcomes for children," Pristow said.
"SDM has been applied successfully since the mid-1980s in more than 20 states, and it provides a higher level of consistency and validity in the assessment and decision-making process," he said.
He said SDM also helps to recognize children who are in unsafe situations or need assistance by incorporating evidence-based assessment tools and decision-making guidelines.
The program was pilot tested in the agency's Eastern and Southeast service areas before it was implemented statewide in July, he said.
DHHS offered presentations to judges, county attorneys and others involved in the child welfare system to help them become familiar with the assessment method. SDM also has been incorporated in assessments made on calls to the Child Abuse Hotline (1-800-652-1999).
"In addition, a review of cases found that some state wards had been living safely at home for a number of months," Pristow said. "We worked with the courts and other legal parties to return custody of children to their parents.
"Between SDM and the review of in-home cases, we've been able to start the trend downward in the number of state wards," he said. "This is a slow but deliberate process because there are a number of hurdles to cross in individually assessing the situation facing every state ward. We will continue to take a critical view of the safety of wards, their circumstances and their well-being."
According to Pristow, on March 1, the number of state wards was 6,121 and by Oct. 1 the number had decreased to 5,812.
"Nebraska has for too long removed too many children from their homes," he said. "More accurately identifying children who can safely remain at home, not come into the system at all, or connecting families to the community sources they need are key to making that shift."
"The focus of our attention always will be the safety and well-being of children who are in our custody," Pristow said. "During the coming months, we expect the number of state wards will continue to decrease."