An internal review of Nebraska's child welfare services found that some children who were wards of the state had actually been living safely at home for months and even years without any need for state oversight, the division's top official said Tuesday.
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Thomas Pristow, who took over as director of Nebraska Children and Family Services earlier this year, said he ordered an internal review amid criticism from family advocates and some lawmakers who say Nebraska is too aggressive in removing children from homes and keeping them in state custody.
Pristow's comments came as the agency announced that the number of state wards has declined by 309 since March, when Pristow took the job. Lawmakers have scheduled hearings Friday to discuss the ways juveniles enter the state child welfare system and rates of out-of-home care.
Pristow said state officials are going through the records and asking judges to release children from state custody when it's safe.
"We had a couple of kids in for 1,000 days," he said. "It's just totally unnecessary for us to do that."
Roughly one-third of Nebraska's 5,800 wards receive in-home services that allow them to stay with family, but Pristow said many cases involve children who no longer require oversight. Some cases involved children who had been reunited with their parents for hundreds of days.
Pristow said he asked agency staff to review cases involving state wards who had been living at home for more than 60 days. He said state child welfare workers are also working under a new set of guidelines when assessing whether to remove a child from a home. The guidelines are designed to help create more consistency in the decisions.
Nebraska removes children from their homes at a rate twice the national average, and keeps a higher proportion of its children in foster care than any other state.
Nebraska state officials say they use an evidence-based tool to decide which children are safe and unsafe in their homes, and work with families and community services when possible to keep them together.
The number of state wards stood at 5,812 as of Monday, down from 6,121 on March 1, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Department spokesman Russ Reno said roughly 60 percent of the children that have left state custody in that time were from the southeast and eastern service areas - districts that include Omaha and Lincoln.
In March, the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform criticized Nebraska's child welfare services, claiming the state has a "take the child and run" mentality that needlessly splits families apart.
Nearly 8 out of 1,000 children were taken from their homes in Nebraska in 2010, compared with 3.4 nationally, according to a report from the group. The report also found a "racial bias" in foster care placements, with African-American children entering the system at a rate 3.4 times higher than the general population, and Native American children at 6.8 times greater.
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