Family First Preparation Helps Nebraska Respond to March Disaster

Organizations come together in Niobrara, Nebraska, to help families impacted by the state’s March disaster. Photo courtesy of Governor Pete Ricketts

It’s been one month since the bomb cyclone swept Nebraska’s Great Plains, leaving a devastating path of ice, snow and flooding. The state’s governor called it “the most widespread destruction we have ever seen in our state’s history,” with estimates of damages in the billions.

Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) officials say that almost 120 youth in the state’s foster care system were directly impacted by the disaster. As child welfare providers scramble to recover, Nebraska’s recent prevention work strengthened the state’s response to the storm, along with many Nebraskans pitching in to help out their neighbors.

In Fremont, one of the communities hardest hit by flooding, a short-term placement facility, Jefferson House, was damaged, displacing seven children ages 12 to 18.

After the storm hit Fremont, several days passed before anyone could get in or out of the town. However, homes were found for each of the children displaced from the facility. Operated by Heartland Family Service, Jefferson House sustained some damage but was safe for staff and children to return to just last week, about a month after the storm hit.

In other areas of the state, the impacts on foster caregivers has been limited, according to Matt Wallen, director of the Division of Children and Families at DHHS.

Nebraskans pitch in to help one another during aftermath of March bomb cyclone. Photo courtesy of Governor Pete Ricketts

Some foster families had water damage to their homes, but thanks to short-term respite care, they have been able to get things back in order and keep children in their homes.

“For the most part, our system hasn’t been too terribly interrupted,” Wallen said. “We’ve tried to provide resources to keep families together.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate to have people step up and provide respite care for some of our foster parents,” who were impacted by flooding.

Recognizing that families most at risk of having their children removed may be more vulnerable to housing or job loss impacts because of the flooding, additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and child care subsidies have been offered by Division of Children and Families at DHHS in the hardest hit counties.

But important support has also come from neighbors helping out one another, Wallen said.

“We’ve seen this overwhelming support,” Wallen said. “I’ve seen the outpouring of support from Nebraskans across the state. Anybody and everybody has come to the table to help victims across the state. It’s part of that Nebraska mentality to pitch in and help a neighbor.”

After visiting one of the state’s Multi-Agency Resource Centers, Wallen said he was overwhelmed by the number of agencies working to help those impacted by the storm.

“They’re taking the extra amount of time to see if there’s anything [impacted Nebraskans] need from our menu of services,” Wallen said.

All of these efforts, Wallen said, he believes have been helped by the state’s efforts to prepare for the implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act by the October 2019 deadline. Family First emphasizes prevention services to help families stay together before foster care becomes necessary. For the past year, agencies across the state have been meeting to build stronger networks to prepare for Family First guidelines.

“We’re in closer touch with all those stakeholders,” Wallen said. “It goes hand-in-hand with the work we’ve been doing. We’ve been well-positioned to respond to the disaster because of all the work we’ve done on the prevention side.”

And the number of calls to the state’s child abuse hotline have stayed consistent, without any spikes since the disaster.

Most importantly, Wallen said it’s important to recognize that many of the people on the frontline helping children and their families also were impacted by the aftermath of the storm.

“Many of them were dealing with significant impact to their own property and they put that aside and came to work,” Wallen said. “They stepped up to do that work.”

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