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October 2020Vol. 21, No. 7Bring Up Nebraska: Community-Led Prevention Is Making a Difference

Written by Stephanie L. Beasley, M.S.W., director, Division of Children and Family Services, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and Jennifer Skala, M.Sc., senior vice president, Nebraska Children and Families Foundation

Nebraska will always prioritize the protection of children. But when is that protection necessary? It is important to understand that children can be best protected when systems and communities prioritize the well-being of children and families, long before there is a concern for a child's safety. The majority of maltreatment toward children in Nebraska is termed as neglect, and through investigations of neglect we have the ability to understand what leads to a child being removed from their home and into the child welfare system. This learning can help Nebraska mitigate the factors leading to removals early on, before neglect occurs.

Jerry Milner and David Kelly of the Children's Bureau recently published, "The role that poverty plays in child welfare decision-making is a topic that has yet to be meaningfully confronted and addressed. Poverty is a risk factor for neglect, but poverty does not equate to neglect. The presence of poverty alone does not mean a child is unsafe, unloved, or that a parent lacks the capacity to care for his or her child. Poverty can make it more challenging for parents to meet their children's needs. We must be resoundingly clear that a child should never be removed from his or her family due to poverty alone."

The critical work laid before child welfare leaders involves making evident the differences between poverty and neglect. While poverty may create barriers for families to meet the needs of their children, we must recognize unintended biases that often lead children and families into system involvement. It is necessary to establish a focus on the well-being of children and families led by those most impacted and in the communities where families can flourish. It is in collaboration with youth, families, and communities that we will establish a clear vision for child and family well-being.

In Nebraska, we have already begun this important work. Local communities are creating well-being systems with collaboration, data, evidence-informed practices, and innovation. Bring Up Nebraska is based on the belief that everyone faces challenges and providing support early, before challenges turn to crises, improves outcomes for children, adults, and communities. Local communities are best situated to provide supports to build protective factors and resilience and are primed to determine strategies to protect and promote child and family well-being.

Nebraska has an opportunity to help families early, long before the family comes to the attention of the child welfare agency. For example, Barb, a single mom, was being evicted but found support through a local community response navigator, a strategy born out of Bring Up Nebraska. She risked homelessness and her children living elsewhere, but instead this support ensured her children remained with her in stable housing. A temporary boost, such as rental assistance, can help families get through a difficult situation.

In 2017, First Lady Susanne Shore recognized potential within existing community prevention efforts. Her leadership galvanized state and local partners to align under the Bring Up Nebraska umbrella. This partnership allows state agencies to collaborate with community-based efforts to understand the strengths and needs of each community and support the development of community-based approaches to prevention. There are currently 22 collaboratives covering 81 counties, each working to identify unique priorities and resources to strengthen children and families.

The Bring Up Nebraska approach to community well-being has received national recognition as a promising, transformative solution to the complex social problems faced by our most marginalized and economically challenged populations, including those in rural and tribal communities as well as in the underresourced, racially and ethnically rich neighborhoods of our metropolitan areas.

This collective impact-framed infrastructure and has emerged over 20 years of practice in the following:

  • Community capacity building
  • Data collection and long-term tracking of well-being indicators across multiple sectors
  • Evaluation of evidence-informed and evidence-based programs and policies
  • Infusion of public and private funds to meet the needs of young people and families before challenges necessitate higher-end system involvement
  • Engagement of stakeholders across the provision and beneficiary spectrum

All Bring Up Nebraska collaboratives have a community response (CR) program of formal and informal supports (e.g., churches, public health, child care, schools) committed to keeping children, young adults, and families safely in their homes and out of public systems. CR relies on youth and family engagement and practices such as central navigation, coaching, and flexible funding to provide tailored services acceptable to each family or individual. The array of resources is accessed through collaborative partners who formally pledge to support families first, no matter the barriers (e.g., funding, eligibility).

Bring Up Nebraska's bright spots are many and include the following:

  • Since 2007, Nebraska has realized a 50 percent reduction of substantiated rates of abuse and neglect. This transformation is attributed in part to prevention supports, increased protective factors, and new practices authentically involving communities and persons with lived experience.
  • During the 2018-2019 program year, collaboratives directly served more than 2,000 families and more than 5,000 children, with 91 percent of the families served at risk due to poverty and 49 percent identifying as Hispanic, Black, Native American, or multiracial.
  • Multigenerational emphases, practices, and policy changes are addressing whole family well-being.
  • A robust data collection and evaluation mechanism is in place. Since 2007, over 300 stakeholders have worked to identify 12 key indicators of well-being. Every Nebraskan can see local indicators in Nebraska Community Opportunity Map, created in partnership with Casey Family Programs.
  • Tribal communities, as well as predominantly Latin and Hispanic communities and metropolitan centers comprising neighborhoods where majority Black, African American, African, and Asian refugee and immigrant populations reside because of historical segregation, are all active Bring Up Nebraska locations.

Nebraska has made progress, but more is needed. We must continue to bring in more elected officials, businesses, community members, and more representation from those disproportionately impacted by state systems. That's why Thriving Families, Safer Children: A National Commitment to Well-Being will be such a positive boost to our work. Children and families need engaged stakeholders creating pathways for communities to address systemic challenges and transforming those systems.

Learn more about how Bring Up Nebraska is a call to action here.