Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

Omaha World-Herald. Aug. 5, 2013.

Child welfare numbers point toward progress

To understand how Nebraska is doing in helping children placed in state care due to neglect or abuse, it helps to look at the numbers.

The latest figures from the state government show that Nebraska is seeing improvement in some important regards, and that’s encouraging. Nebraska has fewer children in custody as state wards, for one.

At the same time, the numbers remain challenging for some other child welfare responsibilities. A key example is the length of time many children are spending in out-of-home care.

Nebraska won’t be making all the progress it needs on child welfare until the broad set of numbers starts moving in the right direction.

Here are recent figures on the positive side.

The number of children taken under state control as wards fell by 13.6 percent over a 14-month period through July 15 of this year. The drop was from 6,121 children in March 2012 to 5,284 last month.

This is a welcome trend, and great credit should go to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (whose child welfare workers handle all parts of the state except the Omaha area, after so many private providers dropped out) and the group of nonprofits known as the Nebraska Families Collaborative, or NFC (which handles Omaha-area cases).

NFC handles 41 percent of Nebraska children in out-of-home care and accounts for 51 percent of the reduction since March 2012.

Encouraging, too, is that 98 percent of state wards are now receiving monthly visits from their case workers compared with fewer than half in 2011. More laudable progress, thanks to the work of HHS and NFC. And state officials say the decline in the number of state wards has not come at the expense of child safety.

On the NFC side, that group has met caseload requirements set by the state and since December has boosted the adoption rate for its children.

Nebraska’s child welfare system has not fully recovered from the turmoil of the hasty privatization effort begun in 2009, however. The quarterly report issued in June by the state Foster Care Review Office pointed to key challenges. Here are three:

— HHS and NFC need to find more permanent homes for children in a timely manner.

In April, 870 boys and girls (23 percent of the total number of state wards) had been in out-of-home care for two years or longer. Of those 870 state wards, 432 had been in continual care for three years or more.

— Too many Nebraska children wind up re-entering out-of-home care.

In April, 39 percent of Nebraska children in out-of-home care had been in such care at least once before. That re-entry rate has held steady for years in Nebraska, the Foster Care Review Office noted.

— Too many children are being moved from one type of placement (shelter, group home, foster home) to another.

In April, 47 percent of Nebraska state wards in out-of-home had been in four or more placements. That percentage has remained at essentially the same level since 2011.

In broad terms, Nebraska needs to tackle three big child welfare needs.

First, rebuild the infrastructure of services that was eroded when private providers dropped out during the recent tumult. Second, reduce the length of time children stay in out-of-home care. Third, make the work more manageable for case workers, to lessen staff turnover and reduce the number of case worker changes for children.

This work can be aided by entities in addition to HHS and NFC, including law enforcement, courts, foster families, schools and neighborhoods.

Together, Nebraska can make the needed progress. Reaching that goal will mean building on the current achievements and moving not just one or two numbers in the right direction but a whole set of them.

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The Grand Island Independent. Aug. 1, 2013.

Three rules for avoiding poverty

This week the Associated Press released a report documenting the extent to which joblessness, poverty and reliance on welfare still affect millions of Americans. The article quotes a number of studies, and as one might expect, each is full of depressing statistics. Age groups, race groups, geographic groups — all are examined in terms of how economic insecurities and disadvantages impact them. Nowhere, however, are any solutions proposed.

It has been almost 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson declared “war on poverty.” After spending billions of dollars on well-intentioned federal programs, however, victory has proven to be elusive.

There have been some successes, of course. And nobody begrudges efforts to help the vulnerable among us. Still, it is discouraging that the richest and most innovative nation in the world hasn’t enjoyed greater success in addressing the root causes of poverty.

Some claim that closing the gap between the rich and poor is simply a matter of taking money from the former and giving it to the latter. History has shown this solution to be doomed to failure, however, for nations that went down this path eventually impoverished everyone. The problem is that reducing financial incentives for growth also reduces growth itself, and finally everyone is reduced to squabbling over what is left.

Instead of seeking false solutions, everyone must realize that avoiding poverty requires making good personal decisions. And equally, we need to understand that the outcomes of bad decisions are more devastating than ever before. This is especially true for young people.

Toward this end, a well-known social commentator once set forth three rules for avoiding poverty:

— Graduate from high school.

— Don’t have a baby until you are married

— Don’t marry while you are a teenager.

For people who obey these rules, poverty is rare.

These three rules are simple, but they are not easy. In far too many cases they are ignored, and the resulting social and financial consequences are proving to be enormous. Especially dispiriting is the lost potential of so many young people, who may not even understand the opportunities that are bypassing them.

For these reasons, we must never give up trying to help people avoid poverty.

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Lincoln Journal Star. Aug. 3, 2013.

No more delay on food safety

Proposed new rules aimed at improving the safety of imported food were bottled up so long that some advocates were worried that the Obama administration had lost the political will to put them into effect.

Now that a lawsuit finally pried them loose, the administration should keep them moving along toward final approval.

At least eight of 19 multistate outbreaks of foodborne illness since January 2011 have been linked to imported foods, according to food safety experts at Pew Charitable Trusts.

And Friday, government food safety officials said the outbreak of illness caused by the cyclospora parasite was linked to salad mix from a Mexican farm that was served at Olive Garden and Red Lobster restaurants in Nebraska and Iowa.

The amount of imported food — especially fruits and vegetables — consumed by Americans has been rising steadily.

Currently about 15 percent of the food eaten in the United States comes from outside its borders. About 20 percent of the fresh vegetables and 50 percent of the fresh fruit purchased by Americans came from outside the country.

Less than 2 percent of that food was inspected by the Food and Drug Administration.

The proposed new rules have been praised widely by food safety advocates, and some industry sources.

The rules aim to make food importers accountable for verifying that foreign growers and other producers are adhering to effective food safety practices. It also establishes a system for certifying third-party auditors who would check foreign food production facilities.

According to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, foodborne illnesses kill almost 3,000 people a year.

It’s been more than 2½ years since the Food Safety Modernization Act was passed by Congress.

Now that 120-day comment period for the new rules finally has been opened, FDA officials said it will still be two to three years before the new rules are implemented.

At that rate that means thousands more will die of food-borne illness before the new program is in place.

The FDA has missed deadline after deadline in implementing the new food law, the first overhaul of food safety laws in about 70 years. It took 18 months and a court order before the new rules on import food emerged. Now the Obama administration has to keep pushing to finish the job.

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Scottsbluff Star-Herald. July 31, 2013.

Good deal: Nebraska’s quirky Carhenge will be in capable hands

Alliance has had a love-hate relationship with Carhenge that’s nearly as old as some of its stacked-up cars.

Jim Reinders came up with the idea to build a copy of England’s Stonehenge nearly three decades ago. He fancied Stonehenge’s present disarray over its original stone circle erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC. Instead of imagining a mere Stonehenge-like arrangement, he studied the structure of the original on site to replicate its size and proportions. He selected 38 classic examples of American cars, including a Nash and a Gremlin, to serve as its monoliths and painted them gray.

Intended to be a memorial to his father, it was dedicated during the June 1987 summer solstice. It became immediately controversial, wrapped in arguments over the definition of art, freedom of expression and appropriate land use. Some of his neighbors hated it and wanted it torn down. Others enjoyed its prehistoric look, its nod to authenticity, its quirky use of American symbolism or even the notion that its whimsical origins irritated some grouches who just didn’t get it. Over the years it’s withstood wind, rain, hail, snow and a mean-spirited effort to have it declared a junkyard.

In time, it took on a life of its own. It appeared in films, music videos, commercials, starred on a Steely Dan album cover and even today trips hundreds of thousands of links to Internet search engines. Someone labeled it the No. 2 wackiest attraction in America. A documentary film explored the debate over whether it was “genius or junk.” It was listed in the book “1,000 Places to See in the USA and Canada Before You Die.” Other auto sculptures and metal art rose up around it. It’s become one of Nebraska’s top tourism attractions, drawing more than 80,000 visitors a year. It’s had its own visitor center since 2006. A guest book tally shortly after the summer solstice this year counted visitors from 48 states and 24 countries.

Many of Carhenge’s visitors are on their way to someplace else — the Sandhills, Chadron State College, the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore. Some steer out of their way to see it while they’re on cross-country road trips. Not all of them eat or sleep in Alliance. But many cities go to a lot of trouble to come up with that sort of attraction. For a city of 8,500 people, it takes only a fraction of Carhenge’s visitors opening their wallets to make a difference to the local economy. Over time, the community has learned to embrace its notoriety.

Not long after it was built, Reinders donated Carhenge and 10 acres around it to a nonprofit group, Friends of Carhenge. The group listed the site for sale in 2011 for $300,000 but found no takers. If all goes as planned, Alliance City Council is expected to accept the monument and a surrounding 10-acre site as a gift.

The site is fairly low-maintenance. It takes some replenishment of gift-shop items, maybe some insurance, fresh gravel, mowing and an occasional touch-up with gray paint after hailstorms. The city won’t even have to pay property taxes. Friends of Carhenge plans to continue to help with fundraising. That means the attraction will still be around when a total solar eclipse plunges it into darkness on Aug. 21, 2017.

Carhenge won’t ever be a big money-maker — admission is free — but with a bit of loving care it could continue to bring visitors to Alliance for years. That’s reason enough for western Nebraskans to applaud the city’s decision.

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