Nebraska, Emerging Leader on Moving Child Welfare Upstream, Submits Family First Plan

Dannette R. Smith, chief executive officer of Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services announces the state’s submission of its Family First five-year strategic plan to the federal government during a press conference on Oct. 10. Photo courtesy of Nebraska DHHS.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) hosted a press conference yesterday announcing the submission of its five-year Family First Prevention Services plan to the federal government next week.

“We’re here today because Nebraska is leading the nation as an early adopter of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act,” said Dannette R. Smith, chief executive officer of DHHS. “Nebraska is one of the first states committed to implementing prevention-focused child welfare programs that make up the first major modernization and overhaul.”

Smith, who was hired to lead Nebraska DHHS earlier this year, has spent more than 20 years working in child welfare in Virginia, North Carolina and Washington.

“I was in child welfare back in the day when we didn’t do prevention, we actually did intervention for everything,” Smith said. “It has taken the federal government three decades to recognize how important prevention is.”

The Family First Act was passed in 2018, and its two major provisions took effect this month. The law expends the use of Title IV-E, the federal child welfare entitlement, to include services aimed at preventing the use of foster care in some cases. The law also limits the amount of federal support for placing children in group homes or institutions.

The Chronicle of Social Change has asked the federal Department of Health and Human Services for a full list of states that have submitted plans already, but has not yet received it. For sure, Nebraska joins the District of Columbia, Kentucky, Arkansas, Utah and Kansas.

Nebraska has already been moving toward contracts with providers to carry out the new foster care prevention services. It solicited requests for qualifications from providers back in May.

Several programs and partners also spoke during the press conference, including Nebraska First Lady Susanne Shore, who volunteered as a court appointed special advocate for three years prior to husband Pete Ricketts (R) being elected governor in 2015. She has played a public role in promoting Bring Up Nebraska, a program of the Nebraska Children and Families Foundation that helps local communities support struggling families.

Now in 11 communities, Bring Up Nebraska is aligned with Family First’s focus on preventing children from coming into foster care in the first place.

“Keeping families together is a lot less expensive than pulling that kid out and putting them in foster care and sending them into the legal system,” Shore said. “Bring Up Nebraska brings together local, state and national partners that reach out to families and help them solve those problems and issues before they snowball into those crises and try to keep them out of the foster care and juvenile justice systems.”

The state’s efforts to move upstream in child welfare have earned accolades from federal leadership.

“The concept behind Bring Up Nebraska is just so consistent with the direction we’re trying to move child welfare across the country, which is a real focus on preventing the occurrence of child abuse and neglect and helping to strengthen families before bad things happen,” said Jerry Milner, associate commissioner of the U.S. Children’s Bureau, in an April interview with The Chronicle.

Shore said the work of Bring Up Nebraska and several organizations allowed for the state to more easily move into the implementation of Family First.

“Fortunately and fortuitously, we were already there. We were ahead of the game and Nebraska had started being a real role model for the rest of the nation in regard to prevention,” Shore said.

Several townhall sessions have been hosted throughout the state to offer information about the implementation of Family First. Two more will take place on Oct. 29, from 3-5 p.m. and 6-8 p.m. at the Bennett Martin Public Library in Lincoln.

“Family First appropriately puts on the focus on empowering and strengthening families to prevent them from being involved with the child welfare system,” Smith said. “Family First supports our mission of helping people live better lives, creating an opportunity to be responsive, to address specific needs of the children.”

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Kim Phagan-Hansel
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