Thursday, June 21, 2012

Foster care in Nebraska: Signs of real progress – but the rate of removal in North Platte is insane

For years, NCCPR, along with outstanding state advocates like the Family Advocacy Movement in Omaha, have been sending one message to the child welfare establishment in Nebraska: The state must get its obscene rate of tearing apart families under control.

Now it looks like the message is getting through.

UPDATE, SEPTEMBER 12:  Thomas Pristow, Director of the Division of Children and Family Services in the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, has written to NCCPR to explain the discrepancy discussed in the August 24 update below.  He says Nebraska gave the same figures to the federal government and to the voluntary database.  But, he says the Nebraska "Court Improvement Project" asked   the organization maintaining the voluntary database to adjust the figures to remove children placed in foster care through the state agency dealing with juvenile delinquency.  Pristow does not explain why the Court Improvement Project made this request.  The Supreme Court Commission on Children in the Court, a key part of the Court Improvement Project, includes three places for top officials of DHHS.  

Unfortunately, Pristow did not mention any of this when he first wrote to NCCPR on July 6 to take umbrage at even the slightest suggestion that his agency might have fudged the figures.  Indeed, Pristow did not investigate the discrepancy until after we pointed it out in the update below.

UPDATE, AUGUST 24, 2012: It now appears that the message has not been getting through to the extent that I'd hoped.  In the post below, I warned that the state might be fudging the figures.  That appears to be what happened.

The source for the data on which this post is based is a set of figures Nebraska reported to a voluntary database.  The federal government has a separate database.  States are required to report entries into care to this database, and there are specific rules for what constitutes an entry into care.  

The federal Department of Health and Human Services has just released figures from that database for the year ending September 30, 2011 – the same time period discussed in this index.  The figures are available here

Nebraska reported a much higher figure for the total number of children removed from their homes to this database: 3,151.  In contrast, Nebraska reported only 2,540 entries to the voluntary database.  

So the statewide figure in the NCCPR Nebraska Rate of Removal Index should be considered invalid.  However, the index still probably gives an accurate indication of how counties in Nebraska compare to each other.  In other words, if the state fudged the figures, the state probably fudged those figures the same way in every county.

Today NCCPR releases its Nebraska Rate of Removal Index, which compares rates of child removal for the Nebraska counties that include more than three-quarters of the children removed from their homes.

These are new data, not yet released by the federal government, for the year ending Sept. 30, 2011.  The key findings:

● If the data are accurate (that is, if the state Department of Health and Human Services did not fudge the figures) Nebraska reduced the number of children torn from their parents by 25 percent over the previous year, an important and impressive change in direction.

● However, even with this decline, Nebraska still is taking away children at a rate that is among the highest in America.

● There are significant variations within the state.  The rate of removal in Lincoln County (North Platte) is insane – nearly double the state average.  In fact, the rate of removal in Lincoln County is so high that, were this county its own state, it would have, by far, the highest rate of removal of any state in America.

● Scotts Bluff County, Madison County, and Lancaster County (City of Lincoln) also are alarmingly high, even by Nebraska standards.

● This jibes with what the Family Advocacy Movement has been hearing anecdotally about the behavior of DHHS, the courts, and law enforcement in these counties. 

● None of the measured counties in Nebraska is as low or lower than the national average.

● The data show no correlation between high rates of removal and improved child safety – as measured by the key outcomes used by the federal government.  These data also are available in the NCCPR Nebraska Rate-of-Removal Index.

The full press release, and the full Rate-of-Removal Index, which includes links to the raw data from which it is compiled, are available at the Nebraska Resources Page at