Nebraska is getting a jump start on embracing the Family First Prevention Services Act, an overhaul of federal child welfare funding that was passed in February.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) hosted a kick-off meeting in mid-June marking the start of the state’s efforts to implement the law, which helps the state serve families at risk of having their children placed in foster care while limiting federal support for most congregate care placements to two weeks.
“FFPSA includes major changes to the child welfare system and it’s important to have all stakeholders and most importantly families at the table when making significant changes like this,” said Matthew Wallen, director of the Division on Children and Family Services (CFS) in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change. “We’re all responsible for the well-being of families in our communities and those families and communities deserve to have a voice in the creation of any system changes.”
The kick-off meeting included a number of child welfare stakeholders such as judges, advocates, providers, families and others often involved in the state’s child welfare system. Working groups were established and leads for those groups identified. The working groups will meet regularly over the next few months to develop strategies for implementing Family First.
“It all starts with us. Community involvement and engagement, both are naturally occurring events, are essential,” Wallen said. “Communities and individuals within those communities should consider what they can do to help a child or a family.”
Before the passage of Family First, Nebraska had already made a number of changes to the state’s system that were included in Family First such as limiting the number of children in a foster family and moving to an electronic case processing system.
“We have many successes we would like to build upon,” Wallen said. “We currently already focus, for example, on family preservation and helping parents ensure their child’s safety, in addition to our efforts to keep children in their parental home while their parents gain additional skills.”
The state has also prioritized “upstream prevention,” seeking to address family stressors like housing and food security. Earlier this year, Trump child welfare official Jerry Milner, associate commissioner for the Children’s Bureau, visited the state to learn more about its early child abuse prevention program, Bring Up Nebraska. After that meeting, Milner said in an email to The Chronicle:
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. We’re excited about the information we’ve heard about Bring Up Nebraska and being here only confirms that this is the right place to visit.
Wallen said he does not see Family First’s restrictions on congregate care settings having an impact on the state’s ability to place children that do come into care.
“Congregate care refers to a place, not the service. The service is the support and knowledge necessary to meet the needs of the child,” Wallen said. “You can wrap support around kids at home if the community is willing and the services are available. The trick is meeting the needs of children and families in rural communities. We are looking at the mode we use to share information and how technology can help us bridge those miles.”
Nebraska DHHS is creating a website where the public can engage in the process of implementing Family First and monitor that progress, but DHHS does not yet have an official roll out date. Until then, people interested in joining a workgroup or provide input on the implementation of Family First are being directed to send emails to DHHS.ChildrenandFamilyServices@nebraska.gov.