LINCOLN — The situation sounded bad. Children missing school day after day. Roaches crawling throughout the home. Parents wary and uncooperative with the child welfare worker who showed up at their door.
It could have resulted in the Lincoln parents being charged with child abuse and neglect, their children being removed from home, and the court ordering the parents to meet several requirements to get their kids back and end state oversight.
That’s been the usual approach to child abuse and neglect cases in Nebraska.
But in this case, state officials used a different, less adversarial approach called “alternative response.” Under that approach, the child welfare worker learned enough about the family to feel confident the children were safe, then offered to help the parents find solutions to their struggles.
Over time, the worker helped the family find roach-free housing and connect with local charities for furniture. The worker found money to help over the holidays and encouraged the parents’ efforts to build a better relationship with the school. Meanwhile, the father got a new and better job.
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By the time the worker bowed out of their lives, the family was in a much better situation without ending up on the state’s child abuse registry or having a court record.
Nebraska child welfare officials launched alternative response as a pilot project in 2014. The approach was used in 72 cases that year. It has been growing ever since.
Last year, for the first time ever, the state handled more child abuse and neglect cases through alternative response than were substantiated and handled through the traditional process.
In fact, the latest Child Abuse and Neglect Annual Data Report shows that alternative response was used in 4,089 cases in 2021, more than double the number in the year before and nearly twice the number of substantiated cases going the traditional route.
State Sen. John Arch of La Vista, the chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said the growth of alternative response appears to be good news for children and families.
“It’s a positive for the families, as long as we’re making sure it’s used correctly,” he said. “If there’s a way that we can prevent a child from having to be removed from home and go into foster care, that’s a good thing.”
Juliet Summers, executive director for Voices for Children in Nebraska, said the organization has long advocated for alternative response. She said removing children from their families causes trauma, even when removal is necessary for safety. Nebraska has a history of removing children from their families at higher rates than most other states.
“How much better for our agency and state to give assistance rather than compiling trauma,” she said. “We just have to make sure children don’t slip through the cracks.”
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, in a statement, called the approach “a useful tool to aid in addressing the diverse needs of families.”
“Alternative response is family-centered and focuses on building upon the family’s strengths and supporting them in developing strong supportive networks so that they are able to have the protective factors needed to ensure their children are safe and well,” the statement said.
But Monika Gross, executive director for the Foster Care Review Office, was more guarded. She said child welfare research generally shows alternative response as beneficial by helping families early and staving off worse problems.
“On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of things we don’t know about alternative response,” she said.
The unanswered questions include how many cases start out as alternative response but have to be moved into traditional response because of concerns about child safety, and how many families go through alternative response and end up being reported again for child abuse or neglect, she said.
Gross is co-chairing a Nebraska Children’s Commission advisory committee looking into Nebraska’s use of alternative response. She said there is no outside oversight of those cases, such as the Foster Care Review Office does for foster care cases.
However, an evaluation of the alternative response pilot program done by the Center on Children, Families and the Law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found generally positive outcomes from the approach. The center compared cases that were randomly assigned to alternative response with similar cases that were assigned to the traditional route.
In a 2020 report, the center reported that alternative response families were less likely than traditional approach families to be reported again for abuse or neglect. They were less likely to have those reports substantiated or to have a child removed.
The evaluation also found that alternative response children showed improvements in emotional symptoms, hyperactivity and conduct problems while their parents learned more about effective parenting and child development and about the social and emotional development of children.
The numbers of cases handled with alternative response has been increasing since the evaluation period ended. State officials said 2021 marked the first year that all cases eligible for alternative response were handled with that approach.
Changes in the criteria used to rule out cases for alternative response also contributed to the growth.
HHS started out using more than 20 factors to disqualify cases, such as sexual abuse, physical abuse to the head or torso or neglect of a child that results in serious bodily injury. Cases involving additional factors, such as domestic violence or alcohol abuse, must undergo a special review to qualify.
The disqualifying factors have changed as the state gains more experience with alternative response. The current factors are spelled out in a state law passed in 2020.
While alternative response cases have increased, the number of child abuse and neglect cases substantiated by state workers has remained relatively steady in recent years. Since 2015, it has hovered around 2,100. The number dipped to 1,903 in 2020, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic but rebounded to 2,080 in 2021.
HHS officials noted, in a statement, that the number of calls to the state child abuse and neglect hotline dropped during the first year of the pandemic because schools were closed and children spent more time at home. However, fewer cases were determined to be unfounded.
Summers said calls during that time may have come from family and friends familiar with a situation, rather than school officials or health care workers, who have more limited knowledge.
Nebraska law requires anyone who encounters a case of suspected child abuse or neglect to report it to the state. The goal is to make sure cases are not missed, but it can result in a larger proportion of unfounded reports.
Photos: Leaders of Nebraska’s state offices and agencies