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Special Report: More Counties to See DHHS Alternative Response to Abuse and Neglect

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When a report comes through the state’s Abuse and Neglect Hotline, it makes its way to a caseworker with the Department of Health and Human Services.

But KaCee Zimmerman, Child and Family Services administrator in DHHS’ Central Service Area, says it doesn’t always mean cops and courts need to get involved.

“Currently we have a process where we talk with the kids and then we talk with the families. And with Alternative Response, what we want to do is we want to connect with those families,” she says.

The name sums it up: it’s an alternative way of solving child welfare problems, a method Zimmerman says uses engagement instead of investigation.

“About 63 percent of the [Alternative Response] cases that come into us are neglect. So that’s really maybe a dirty house, not enough food, kids aren’t getting to school,” says Zimmerman.

She says families that fit the program aren’t truly trying to cause harm, so they visit the home, talk about the issues, then find community resources to help.

“It could be something very simple, like maybe they just need a resource to get like a washer and dryer, or access to be able to have like clean clothes or to be able to clean their home or things like that, just basic household or hygiene items,” explains Heather Cline-Ford, Family Outreach programs coordinator for Central Nebraska Community Action Partnership (formerly Central Nebraska Community Services).

The CNCAP is one agency involved in developing Alternative Response as a statewide program. It launched in five counties, including Hall County, in October of 2014. Cline-Ford says their office hasn’t been called on yet to help with any of the 53 Hall County cases DHHS has used the method with so far, but she says they believe in the system.

“You don’t ever want people to have to get involved with [Child Protective Services], but if they have to, this is a less complicated means of being able to get resources and things like that and being able to work directly with service providers,” says Cline-Ford.

NTV News did speak with one family who didn’t want to go on camera, but said DHHS used Alternative Response to connect them with therapy for their out-of-control child. The parent felt it as successful, saying, “That was the starting point, we were at a loss. When they stepped in it was amazing -- a complete turnaround in the past few months since they’ve been involved.”

Zimmerman says it’s proven to be a more informal approach, and puts the family first.

“This way they control when you’re coming to their house, and they’re usually like ‘come out today or tomorrow or as soon as possible, I want to see what you have to say,’” she says. “From that we can explore different things that maybe they need that they’re not always aware of. They’re just so stuck in this place that they can’t seem to see a way out of it.”

Out of the cases in Hall County so far, Zimmerman says they had about three that didn’t work out and ended up needing a traditional response investigation. She says reports from the Lincoln, Omaha and Scottsbluff areas where Alternative Response was also piloted have also been good, and DHHS plans to expand the program into more counties this year.


Because Alternative Response is one strategy in a larger effort to keep kids in their homes instead of environments such as foster care, the state is having studies done as they grow it to see how it helps.

“The whole thought of doing this is being proactive and prevention,” says Zimmerman.

She says the goal isn’t just a temporary fix to whatever problem caused the initial report.

“What we want to do with that process of hooking them up with community services is sustainability,” she says.

Not every case qualifies -- DHHS says when a call comes into the Abuse and Neglect Hotline, it’s screened with a set of at least 21 criteria, and if none of those are met, meaning there’s no immediate danger to the kids or other big risk factors, it’s put on the Alternative Response pathway. But because it’s a new program, half the eligible cases get sent the traditional route anyway so DHHS can study how it’s working.

“See the differences with are we seeing these families again, or what kind of resources, are the families satisfied with Alternative Response, so then we have a really good balance to be able to see is this a good direction for us to go in,” Zimmerman says.

Legislation creating Alternative Response called for a report after its first year of use in the pilot counties. Those findings given to the Nebraska Children’s Commission last November say with 317 families served statewide in about the first 12 months, the sample size is too small to get a clear picture of some of those factors. But in surveys with stakeholders, families, and caseworkers, many felt there were positive benefits from the program.

“You hope that you kind of give them some of those pieces, that if they do get into a crisis situation that they will have some of those skills internally that they know what to do or know where to go to get the information and resources that they need,” says Cline-Ford.

The report says the next phase means using Alternative Response in other counties, with plans for 25 in the west, four in central (Greeley, Sherman, Howard, and Loup), and six in northern Nebraska this year.

“We’re expanding into the more rural areas, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens there just because of some of them have less resources and things like that,” says Zimmerman.

But agencies say there’s more assistance with needs like food, utilities, and therapy than many people realize, so they say the connections DHHS helps a family make benefits them as well.

“Anytime that we’re able to help families, it’s great. We try to, you know, get our name out there and just what types of resources and services we can provide so people aren’t struggling, and just getting that information out to people,” Cline-Ford says.

Reporter’s notes:

Another aspect of studying the program as it goes is the savings value. Zimmerman says it’s not really a dollars and cents advantage because a traditional case closes in about 30 days while their workers will see an Alternative Response family once a week for sometimes a lot longer.

But they do believe developing those community links will be better in the long run, hopefully cutting down on getting involved with the state for well-being problems again.

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Click HERE to learn more about Alternative Response at the DHHS website.

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