By Governor Dave Heineman
Dear Fellow Nebraskans:
This week I want to highlight the work of the staff at the Division of Children and Family Services, which is the largest of the six divisions making up the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
The primary responsibility of the approximately 2,100 employees within the division is to ensure that Nebraska children and families are safe. They work with local authorities, service providers, court officials, and other agencies to help children in foster care, coordinate adoptions and intervene when children and vulnerable adults are in harm's way.
The division is led by Todd Reckling who began his career as a frontline protection and safety worker 17 years ago. He has been critical in implementing reform efforts that are helping transform Nebraska's child welfare system into a better functioning, more family-oriented network. The work is ongoing but it's clear from the data that progress is being made.
The division has worked with other partners to find permanent placements for state wards. They have put a priority on resolving the cases involving young children in particular and keeping families intact whenever possible. These efforts have helped reduce the number of state wards from an all-time high of 7,803 in 2006 to 6,348 in September -- a decline of nearly 19 percent. For the third year, more children have left state care than entered it.
Maintaining family connections is very important, which is why more than a quarter of children in foster care are placed with relatives. Safety is a priority and when it's not possible to reunite children with their parents; caseworkers focus on pursuing adoption and guardianship agreements. Adoptions of former state wards have increased more than 92 percent in the last five years, reaching a record high in 2008 of 572 adoptions.
Division personnel also work with vulnerable adults who are unable to protect themselves, oversee the rehabilitation and parole of juvenile offenders, and help struggling families become self-sufficient by providing economic assistance programs ranging from food stamps, energy assistance, Aid to Dependent Children, and child care subsidies that help with child care expenses.
One example of these efforts is the 64,000 Nebraska households receiving help with monthly food purchases. The division's food stamp team is consistently one of the top performers in the nation for correctly denying or terminating food stamp benefits and ranks seventh in payment accuracy. This team is so efficient and well-respected at the federal level that members deployed to help administer food stamps as part of the recovery following the 2008 Gulf Coast hurricanes.
The division is using technology to provide families with an easier, more efficient way to apply for the economic assistance. Launched online in 2008, ACCESSNebraska allows low-income residents to apply for benefits any time via the Internet. Of the approximately 45,000 applications submitted online in the past year, 35 percent are received after business hours and are processed faster than paper-based applications. This is one of the changes underway aimed at providing better, more responsive help to those in need.
Another long-term project for the division is an effort to provide more preventative and early intervention services to families in order to help more children remain at home with their families, rather than being removed to foster care placements. Historically, 70 percent of state wards have been placed outside their homes. Today the division is developing new support systems and services to instead help 70 percent of children who are state wards remain at home and receive services.
This is one of the major transformations the Division of Children and Family Services is implementing to improve services and provide meaningful help for vulnerable children and adults in our state.