LINCOLN — Nebraska hopes to be among the first states taking advantage of a new federal law aimed at keeping children out of foster care, officials said Thursday.

Dannette Smith, CEO of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said the Family First Prevention Services Act breaks from 30 years of federal child welfare policy by putting the focus squarely on prevention services.

“Previously, federal funding for child welfare was largely available to states only after a child enters the foster care system,” she said. “Under Family First, states can utilize federal funds for programs that strengthen families and reduce the trauma that occurs when a child is removed from his or her home.”

The money can be used, for example, to pull parents back from the edge through mental health and substance abuse treatment, without taking away their children. It can be used to help pregnant foster girls learn parenting skills they may not have experienced themselves, along with independent living skills.

It can be used to guide so-called kinship caregivers, people who take in the children of relatives or friends, in applying for economic assistance and finding community resources to meet the children’s needs and their own.

“Family First appropriately puts the focus on empowering and strengthening families to prevent the need for involvement in the child welfare system,” Smith said.

But if children must be removed, the law requires that they be able to maintain family connections and limits placements in group homes and other less family-like settings.

Jim Blue, CEO of Cedars, a Lincoln-based organization that provides child welfare services, said the law represents the latest evolution of child welfare, which has gone from a focus on institutions and group homes to an emphasis on foster care and family-like settings.

“With (the new law), it’s about never removing that child in the first place and going in and building strengths and helping that family stay together,” he said.

Smith said Nebraska has developed a five-year prevention plan, which officials hope to submit to the federal government next week. The plan includes evidence-based services such as in-home, skills-based training for parents; mental health care, including family therapy; and substance abuse treatment programs.

Officials do not know how much money Nebraska may get under the law, but it will be new money for the state, said Jamie Kramer, children and family services administrator for HHS. In 2016, the latest year available, the state got $19 million in federal funds for foster care, compared with $2.8 million for child abuse prevention.

Federal funds now provided for foster care of children from low-income families will not be affected, Kramer said.

State child welfare officials have been working to reduce the number of children removed from their homes in recent years, as more cases are handled without going to court.

The number of children in out-of-home care increased from 2014 through 2017, peaking at 3,478 on July 1, 2017. It dropped to 2,959 as of Jan. 1 this year, the lowest total of the previous five years. A majority of those removed from their parents now are being placed with relatives or friends.

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