Alternative response for low-risk children proposed

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony March 15 on a bill that would require the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Nebraska Children’s Commission to develop an alternative response implementation plan.

Alternative response is a practice that handles low-risk child welfare cases by empowering families to build on their strengths, rather than criminally investigating them or placing them on the Child Abuse and Neglect Register. Caseworkers who suspect that a child’s safety is compromised would be required to refer the family to the department and law enforcement for investigation.

Under LB503, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash, the department would be allowed to use the alternative response method in five designated locations, which could be expanded to five more locations on Jan. 1, 2015. Use of the alternative response method after May 15, 2016, would require approval by the Legislature.

Poverty currently is not a factor considered by DHHS when removing children from their homes in abuse and neglect cases, Coash said, although it often is a contributing factor to a child’s maltreatment. Removing children from their home often is more traumatic for them than the factors that led to their maltreatment, he said.

“What we have is a one-size-fits-all approach to investigating [child] abuse and neglect,” Coash said. “This [bill] gives the department a tool to help families and not criminalize them.”

Vicki Maca, deputy director for DHHS Children and Family Services, supported the bill, saying the department currently must conduct a criminal investigation in child abuse cases. The bill would provide the department an alternative process in low-risk situations and would encourage families to seek the necessary help before a child’s welfare is compromised, she said.

Sarah Forrest, policy coordinator for Voices for Children in Nebraska, testified in support of the bill, saying the current child abuse investigation process was implemented with the mindset that serious abuse was occurring. However, she said, 82 percent of Nebraska child abuse and neglect cases are related more to poverty than serious abuse.

Melanie Williams-Smotherman, executive director of the Family Advocacy Movement in Omaha, agreed.

“We must stop taking so many children out of their homes and away from their families because they are poor and unable to afford services for their children,” she said.

Sarah Helvey, director of Nebraska Appleseed Child Welfare, provided neutral testimony. The proposed alternative implementation plan would be successful only if the state provides adequate services for at-risk children and families.

No one testified in opposition and the committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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