Stakeholders Discuss Future of the Foster Care System in Nebraska

May 7, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·


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Many children in foster care have parents who were also in the system. Now, new efforts are underway in Nebraska to break that cycle.

It's movie night at Omaha’s Dundee Theater, but not the kind you’d expect. Instead of watching the latest Avengers movie, this crowd has just watched “Foster” – a documentary about the foster care system. Now, people familiar with that system are talking about it. One of them is Becca Daugherty who lived it. She’s 23 now. But starting when she was 10, her father became abusive toward the family. Her mom tried to get help moving out, but couldn’t get it.

"The services that we needed were not provided right away, when we needed them," Daugherty said. "Which caused me to later enter the foster care system as those issues progressed over time."

Child Advocacy Groups, foster care parents and former foster care children file in to watch the documentary in Omaha. (Photo by Brandon McDermott, NET News)

At age 15, Daugherty was taken out of her home and placed in foster care. But she says it didn’t have to be that way if help with housing and transportation had been available for her mother.

"If those opportunities had been available at the time when I was 10 to 12 then my whole story could be different," Daugherty said.

While still in foster care, at age 18, Daugherty became pregnant. For a time, it looked like the cycle of being put in foster care might continue into the next generation.

"Since I became pregnant while in care, there was an issue of whether he was my son or the state's son," Daugherty said.

But that’s when the state’s new approach came into play. Daugherty says she got some of the services her mother didn’t get years ago. First, she got custody of her son, then she got help from community groups as a new mother.

"Utilizing those prevention services, which helps me gain an education and employment, helped me gain access to a vehicle and learn to manage my own finances," Daugherty said. "Those simple things have helped me to be successful both as a parent and as an individual, as a student and as an employee."

In some ways, Nebraska’s doing what federal legislation passed last year is trying to get every state to do: shifting the focus from removing abused and neglected children from their homes, and instead, focusing on prevention and keeping children in their biological homes.

Daugherty pointed to one person in the documentary she watched that night whose childhood mirrored her own. Just like her, she’s now trying to give back to other foster care children coming out of the system as adults.

May is National Foster Care Awareness Month. (Courtesy Photo)

44% of children under the age of five in the foster care system in Nebraska have at least one parent who was also in the child welfare system. That’s a cycle Daugherty wants to break.

Another member of the panel was Vernon Daniels, a juvenile judge in Douglas County. He’s served on the bench since 2001. He says the state needs to do a better job explaining to kids what’s happening when they enter the system.

"I don't know if we do a very good job at explaining at the front end when children are removed what's going on in their lives," Daniels said.

However, Judge Daniels says he’s encouraged by what he’s seen happen over the past five years in Nebraska.

"We're not a perfect system, definitely, but we're not as broken as so many would lead others to believe," Daniels said. "We're not as broken as people think."

Daniels acknowledges sometimes pulling a child from their biological home is necessary to keep the child safe. He says to think otherwise is to “have blinders on.”

Another member of the panel was Bill Stanton, a consultant with Casey Family Programs, a non-profit which works to reduce the need for foster care. Stanton says other states can learn from some of the things Nebraska’s doing.

"When you look at, for example, your Community Response Program and also your Bring Up Nebraska, the federal government just recently – when they issued an information memorandum – they highlighted those two programs as programs that ought to be duplicated around the United States for prevention," Stanton said.

Bring Up Nebraska and the Community Response Program were set up to focus on keeping families together and children out of the foster care system. They work directly with families before problems get out of hand.

One teenager in the film was charged with felony assault because he threw a container of juice at a worker at a group home.

"If that would have happened within our own homes, those kids would be grounded, right?" Daugherty said.

Daugherty says the child welfare system as a whole can do a better job of understanding the trauma of children and get to the “why” – the reason they are acting out.

Daugherty says most of these kids are in the system because they’re hurting, and in turn, often hurt others.

"It's a punitive system, instead of a loving system," Daugherty said.

Paula Lawhead and her husband have been adoptive parents in Nebraska for five years and have been fostering for one year. In that time, they’ve adopted two children, age 16 and 5. She agrees with Daugherty when it comes to changing the system and understanding trauma.

"So that there's an understanding that when behaviors come up, it's not because the child is naughty," Lawhead said. "It's because they have needs."

One way Lawhead says Nebraska can get better is helping foster parents understand the trauma children have gone through.

"Educating foster parents on what trauma does to a young person – not just in the experiences that they've had – but that there's physiological changes that happen in a brain when a child is young and has experienced trauma," Lawhead said.

She says the best way foster parents can help is by showing support and empathy.

"When we are approaching the children that we've been entrusted with, to love, to attend to, and care for – they have really significant needs that have not been met in the past," Lawhead said. "They are crying out in lots of different ways for those needs to be met now."

And when it comes to taking away the stigma of being a foster care child. Lawhead says one change is easy. Stop thinking of them as being “those kids,” and think of them as being “our kids.”