Making Strides in Child Well-Being in Nebraska
BY JENNIFER LITTON
A three-year-old Omaha girl was found wandering down the street wearing only a diaper and t-shirt. Once brought into the foster care system, the child was assigned a court-appointed special advocate (CASA) volunteer. Kimberly Thomas, executive director of CASA for Douglas County, says that CASA volunteers serve as advocates for the best interest of children as they navigate the court system.
Thomas says this CASA’s background in speech pathology benefitted the child greatly in the end. “This child was a non-verbal child. She literally did not have a voice. The speech pathologist was so critical on her case because she was able to advocate for the services she was provided.”
Because of her speech pathology expertise, the CASA coached the foster parents on how the child would potentially react to certain therapies. “When she was being adopted, the state said ‘We’re not going to pay for these services any longer.’ It was the testimony of our CASA volunteer that got the judge to order the state to continue to pay for these services. By the time the girl was adopted a year and a half later, she was able to speak and she told her CASA, ‘Thank you.’”
A recent Omaha World-Herald editorial noted that Nebraska’s child welfare system has made considerable progress in recent years in moving toward greater stability, but that major challenges in helping abused and neglected children remain, as reflected in a report from the Foster Care Review Office. Volunteering as a CASA is just one way to help lead the change in this all too important initiative for Omaha’s children. At any one time, more than 1,300 children are part of the foster care system in Omaha because they are victims of abuse or neglect. Other Omaha agencies and nonprofits share this mission to make a difference in the life of a child.
Even 20 years ago, places like CASA and Project Harmony, a child protection center, did not exist in Omaha. CASA for Douglas County was created as a response to the ineffectiveness of the child welfare system based on turnover and high case loads, according to Thomas.
“It was tough,” Thomas says. “Think about being a kid and having to speak up in a room full of adults—all of them strangers.” She says that on average, a child meets between 10 and 15 strangers in the first couple of hours after being removed from a home. “What kids did before is that they would have to speak up for themselves, and a lot of kids don’t have that ability.”
She says that in the past, judges would wait a long time before they would ask for a CASA. “Because we’ve grown so much we’re able to handle those cases earlier and establish relationships with these kids and professionals from the beginning, which really makes a difference.” Thomas says that currently there are just over 200 CASA volunteers, but the organization could use another 200 to 225. “It’s a big push. Our primary focus is finding individuals who can be fierce advocates for kids and really bringing their voice to the forefront in these court proceedings,” she says.
The CASA for Douglas County staff has recently grown from five to 16. “Each one of these growth cycles allows our staff to coach, mentor and work with all of these volunteers. That’s just a sign of how many more kids we can serve in the system,” she says.
Prior to becoming a CASA, no special training or education is needed. CASA for Douglas County provides 30 hours of training over a five-week period. The time commitment is around five to 10 hours per month over a two-year term. Besides being an advocate in court, CASAs assist in other ways—like helping students practice for their ACTS or making sure children have the right medication and eye glass prescription. These are often things that are “noise in the background that don’t get a lot of attention,” Thomas says.
“Having a strong, positive adult in your life is really important—having somebody in your life that is your cheerleader. There’s nothing that can really compare to that—someone who believes in you, someone who wants the best for you.” To learn more about giving a child a voice, visit casaomaha.org.
Project Harmony is the first place a child is taken after experiencing a trauma, abuse or neglect in both Douglas and Sarpy County and 16 counties in Southwest Iowa. Project Harmony provides effective, immediate and sensitive support to child abuse victims and their non-offending family members. Each child undergoes a medical evaluation and forensic interviews and receives advocacy services and therapy if needed, according to Amy Chisholm, director of development for Project Harmony.
Like CASA, Project Harmony grew out of a response to community members who wanted to see change in the current child welfare program. For Project Harmony, it was specifically related to the outcomes of investigations of child abuse. According to Project Harmony’s website, the vision was to create an integrated response system and develop a single child-friendly location where all the professionals could come together to serve each child.
Project Harmony is now one of the largest child advocacy centers in the nation and assembles a multi-disciplinary team composed of law enforcement, investigative, social service, medical and referral professionals dedicated to protecting children and prosecuting offenders.
Chisholm says that the most important thing anyone in the community can do is to understand what Project Harmony does and to know that every little bit helps. “They can help in many ways. They can help spread awareness. They can donate, either monetarily or in-kind. They can volunteer.”
Chisholm’s job involves planning, organizing and directing all of Project Harmony’s fundraising, including major gifts, annual fund drive, a sustaining fund and special events. “In 2017, Project Harmony served approximately 5,000 children. In the last five years, the staff has more than doubled along with the number of children served. It is with these increases in numbers that the annual budget has reached an outstanding level and the need for major gift support,” she says.
“We assist children who have been abused or neglected. We also assist children who’ve witnessed violence if their parents have been involved in some crime and they are taken away by the police. Those kids have nowhere to go, so they come to Project Harmony,” Chisholm says. She says that Project Harmony focuses on ending the cycle of child abuse and neglect in the Omaha community. “Project Harmony restores courage, facilitates healing and empowers each of us to be someone in the
life of a child.”
If you are interested advocating for children in Omaha, the first step is to take Project Harmony’s pledge for Project Be Someone, found at projectbesomeone.org. “We want everybody involved with a child, or children, to be someone,” Chisholm says. The five steps to protecting our children are to learn the facts, minimize opportunity, talk about it, know the signs and react responsibly.
“It takes all of us to come together to be someone. Whether it is reporting to the child abuse hotline if they suspect any sort of abuse in a child’s life or just reaching out to that child and being able to help them. It takes just 10 seconds to make a phone call to the hotline,” she says.
Voices for Children
The Nebraska Child Welfare Blueprint Report from March of 2017 listed child welfare system priorities and reported an overarching consensus in Nebraska and nationally that child welfare agencies cannot do this work alone. This system depends on partnerships across multiple state agencies, private providers, legal systems and community organizations to meet the full range of child-welfare services.
In Nebraska, Voices for Children has worked for more than 30 years to ensure that all children in the state reach their full potential. In 2017, according to Voices for Children’s Executive Director Aubrey Mancuso, their victories included moving the needle for child well-being in the state.
A number of bills were signed into law, including providing protections and support for pregnant and parenting students in high school and reauthorizing the Alternative Response pilot project, allowing for a more family-focused response to cases of child maltreatment. Another bill implemented a system of graduated responses for juvenile probation officers.
Voices for Children’s goal is to make Nebraska a better place to be a kid and “ensure that where barriers to opportunity exist, that we’re doing everything in our power to leverage state systems and programs to effectively address challenges for those kids,” Mancuso says.
She says that besides working with the state legislature, Voices for Children also works with administrative officials from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education. “Sometimes we work with school boards and school districts and we do a little bit of work with federal delegation, educating them on issues impacting kids and how some of the policy decisions they are asked to make would impact kids in Nebraska.”
She says that in the past year on a federal level, the agency focused on health care for kids. “We’re actually at a really good place right now. About 95 percent of kids in Nebraska are covered by some form of health insurance.” Mancuso says that about one-third of those kids get health care through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). “Both of those things have been in jeopardy federally this year. Thankfully, the damaging changes that were being proposed to the Medicaid program earlier this year weren’t approved by Congress.”
Congress has failed to reauthorize CHIP, which officially expired on Sept. 30th, 2017. CHIP served as a safety net for 9 million children nationwide. “If they don’t move forward soon, the state’s going to face some challenging decisions about what to do with the population of kids that gets health insurance through this program.”
Among Voices for Children’s community education efforts is the annual Kids Count in Nebraska report, the most comprehensive data resource on child well-being in the state. The report covers data in population, health, education, economic stability, child welfare and juvenile justice. “We also have partnerships with several state agencies to receive data that isn’t typically made available to the public and put it in our report about how Nebraska kids are doing, what programs and services we’re providing to kids, and how our kids are being served by different state programs.”
She says Voices for Children spends a lot of time trying to figure out how to make things better for kids, which often takes them in a lot of different directions. “Some of that is research; some of it is understanding what the current situation is. What are some of the needs that stand out now? Where are we doing well when we compare to other states and where do we have room for improvement?”
Mancuso says the next step involves asking how we can improve outcomes in some of the areas where we are not doing well on behalf of the kids, using strategies that other states have suggested. The third step involves asking how. “It looks a little bit different depending on the issue, but a lot of times that means working with a policymaker to make changes to our state law and then trying to move the bill forward so that it does eventually become a state law.”
The work doesn’t end there. “After that, it’s ensuring that law gets implemented in a way that meets its original intent. Sometimes that’s meeting with various departments that are responsible for implementing it.” They also sit on committees that monitor the implementation effort and have community meetings across the state on how some of the changes will work.
Mancuso says that this past year has been one of the more challenging years. “In spite of that, there were a few areas where we made progress.” For many years, Voices for Children has worked on reforming the juvenile justice system on “to make it more rehabilitative and less punitive for young people.” “We’re really trying to ensure that we’re not treating kids like mini-adults. We know their brains are different. We have more of an opportunity when a young person comes into contact with the law to really help them get on a different path,” Mancuso says.
They’ve also worked with a state policymaker to help make changes in the ways that kids can move forward or backward when they are on probation. Mancuso says that she sometimes see stories that upset her because she see opportunities where the system, through a more thorough intervention, could have had a better result. “There are times when you look at a situation and you see that there could have been a different path for them.
I think what’s great about our work is that when you see something wrong, you can think about how you can change it so that it doesn’t happen to other kids in the future.” To individuals who would like to get involved at this level, Mancuso has some advice. “Get to know who your state senator is and get to know them almost before you need something. And then, don’t be afraid to reach out to them about the things you’re interested in, that you’re passionate about, and the things that would impact either your work or your personal circumstances.” Mancuso also advises writing op-eds or letters to the editor. “A lot of our state leaders and others really do read those.” To report child abuse in Nebraska, call 1-800-652-1999.