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Beefing up social services

(Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series about rising numbers of children removed from their homes in Douglas County. The first part (Friday, Aug. 17 Echo) examined how those numbers more than doubled following news coverage of the death of a 4-year-old Pope County boy at the hands of his father's girlfriend.)

The rising numbers of children removed from their homes has challenged social workers to find homes for them, especially for teenagers and infants.

"I've been here at night sometimes looking for a home," said Laurie Bonds, director of Douglas County Social Services. "We call and beg people to take them at least for a few days."

Because taking children from their homes can be traumatic, social workers first ask relatives to take them. But that doesn't always work. While 23 of the children removed from their homes so far this year were placed with relatives, 30 went to live with unrelated families, Bonds said. Others went to group homes or residential treatment for mental health or emotional or behavioral issues or were headed for adoption.

Through the end of June, 72 different children had spent time in foster care in 2018, more than all of 2013 or 2014, according to social services statistics.

To help with the growing demand for foster homes, Douglas County pays for daycare for foster children, Bonds said. Most children removed from their homes were age 9 or younger. Also, the county added three children protection workers in 2015 and the county board approved another position this year.

More people decide cases

As more reports of child abuse and neglect pour in — the 479 reports through the end of June alone surpassed all reports filed in 2013 — Douglas County Social Services has more help to examine the merits of each case.

Beginning three years ago, Douglas County began bringing in members of other county agencies to decide what should happen in each case. Now, not only do social workers review cases, but so do members of the sheriff's office, police department and county attorney's office.

Having handled child abuse cases for many years, Dan Lee of the Douglas County attorney's office said he thinks this committee system strengthens the county's response to reports of child abuse or neglect.

"It makes for a stronger overall decision-making process to have more perspectives," he said. "Before the committee formed, it was just social services and their staff."

The committee typically reviews 2-5 cases and decides whether to screen in or screen out a case. Screening out doesn't necessarily mean it's off the radar, he said, as social services may offer the family help anyway.

If the committee screens in a report, it has to decide whether it is serious enough to warrant an investigation. If not, then it will go for an assessment, which means providing services for a family without deciding whether the child suffered maltreatment.

The changes taking place at social services are not always visible to those with the responsibility for reporting harm or suspected harm to a child.

"We always felt that social services was responsive when we've dealt with them," said Val Arnquist, director of Head Start in Douglas and several other counties. "I know they're working hard and it's very difficult work."

Cases of neglect trouble Bonds the most. Unless neglect is extreme or unsafe, they don't remove children from their homes. If she had a magic wand, she would wave it to ensure children don't have to live in squalor or without appropriate clothing.

Bonds said she does believe her office has saved kids' lives.

"I can personally think of a few," she said.