Nebraska efforts aim to strengthen care for troubled children, and 'it's working,' Ricketts says

Gov. Pete Ricketts responds to questions during an Omaha World-Herald interview at the governor's office on Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2016, in Lincoln, Nebraska. RYAN SODERLIN/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — Nebraska officials on Tuesday celebrated some early successes of efforts to strengthen services and support for troubled children and their families.

Among the results so far:

  • Fewer youngsters are winding up in costly intensive treatment settings, including inpatient hospital care, psychiatric residential treatment facilities and therapeutic group homes.
  • More than two-thirds of troubled youths who have been helped by statewide crisis response teams have been able to stay in their own homes.
  • Families and youths involved with the system are getting a voice in the development of new and expanded services.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said the efforts to build a “behavioral health system of care” have had a positive impact on Nebraska youths and their mental health over the past two years.

“What we have seen with the system of care is that it’s working,” he said.

Work on creating a system of care got underway with support from a $12 million, four-year grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The effort seeks to better coordinate services and support provided by state agencies, private nonprofit groups, local governments, behavioral health care providers, families and patient advocates.

Sheri Dawson, director of behavioral health for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, said a key goal is to break down barriers so that children and families can get the care they need, no matter which agency they approach first.

She pointed to some signs that the effort is working.

The federal grant helped launch youth crisis response teams across the state in May 2017. Since then, more than 500 youths have been treated and more than 69 percent of those have remained at home.

Among youngsters involved with the state’s child welfare, juvenile probation or behavioral health agencies, 2,706 spent time in inpatient or residential treatment during 2015. Last year, the number was down to 2,618.

Nebraska’s focus on early intervention and coordination of services through the system of care helped the state and Ricketts earn the B4Stage4 Leadership Award from Mental Health America earlier this year.

Last month, Ricketts generated controversy when he vetoed a bill aimed at helping more school children with mental and behavioral problems. The governor said that the bill would have duplicated existing efforts and that private donations can be made without legislation. The bill, backed by numerous mental health and child advocates, would have used $3.6 million in private donations to add a social worker in each of the state’s 17 educational service units.

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