A Look Inside The Child Welfare System

By Neva Ducker, Child Welfare Youth Fellow

This is a collection of interviews that I conducted with some amazing people that have dealt with child abuse cases. The purpose of these interviews was to get an understanding of what goes on in one of these cases and how they are handled by different people within the system. 

I learned so much through these interviews and I hope that they can help others learn about the system as well. 

Kendra, Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline Administrator

I got to sit down with Kendra, a current administrator for the abuse and neglect hotline. She has been an administrator since May 2022. However, she has been working with DHHS for about 13 years. 

Kendra says that her job entails many things. She helps with calls – talking to those who make reports, and making collateral calls to support her staff. As she oversees the operations of the hotline, she also works on current improvement projects and plans for future projects as well. These projects improve things like workforce, outcome, engagement and morale, and policies or procedures within the state.

Hotline workers must follow many guidelines and find out a lot of information about the child that they are being called about. The information they get all has a reason behind it. Hotline workers first find out demographics like the location and family information. They ask for the location to determine what district they need to contact. Then they ask about the concerns of the caller. Kendra said that they sometimes ask about the strength of the family, and if they are supportive of each other. 

Once they get all the information they need, hotline workers go through their screening tool and assign it based on different criteria. Cases are determined to be either a priority one or a priority two. Cases that are determined to be priority ones have to be talked about with the supervisor and administrator because they are so serious. 

If cases do not meet the priority requirements, there is an alternative response that has different criteria as well. The next step is determining how to handle the situation. If the perpetrator is not a household member, it will become a law enforcement case instead of a DHS case, since the perpetrator does not have regular access to the victim. 

The rest of my conversation with Kendra was about the screening tool that they use. It is about 30 pages long and renewed regularly. There are different sections of criteria that a case could meet. For example, if a child is showing up to school in dirty clothes and unwashed repeatedly, that would fall under neglect or failure to provide appropriate hygiene. I learned a lot from Kendra during our conversation, and it was a pleasure to talk to her. 

The call center was overwhelming with information for me during the interview. Hotline workers have so much they have to go through to determine if a call is accepted, then they must determine what level of priority it is, and after that, they have to figure out how to handle the situation. 

Keith, State Trooper

I got the opportunity to talk to a state trooper named Keith about law enforcement’s role in a child abuse case.. Our conversation went very well, and I learned a lot from him. He has been a state trooper for 20 years but has been in law enforcement since 1997. 

Keith stated that law enforcement’s role in child abuse cases is mostly an investigatory role. When investigating these cases, there is a specific way that law enforcement must talk to the children involved as well as the family. He said that sometimes, because of the family dynamic, other family members might protect the abuser. 

Keith said that, in some cases, he consults outside organizations like Project Harmony so they can bring investigators in to assist with the case. This is because these organizations can bring in a gentler approach for sensitive situations. 

In the case of removing children from a home, law enforcement acts more like the “muscle.” They make sure that everything goes as planned. They can also take the children into emergency protective custody. 

When asked if he has ever seen a child left in an abusive home, Keith had a very insightful answer. He said that he has, but it was never on purpose. There are many different factors that could lead to this, like lack of evidence or resources needed. 

Keith went on to talk to me about being trauma-informed and explained to me some of the examples. Sometimes abuse will lead someone to, later on, become an abuser. This is important to know when working with cases and helping someone who has been abused. You have to help them unlearn the trauma and give them the resources to make sure that they do not become a perpetrator later on. 

For the rest of the interview, we talked about our own experiences, and it was refreshing to be heard by someone. I am so glad that I got the opportunity to talk to Keith and learn from him. 

I had a great interview with the state trooper, and his responses were very eye-opening. Since my experience with police officers and child abuse was so bad, this was the most impactful interview for me. It helped me understand that not all police officers are bad, and most of them take child abuse cases very seriously. 

Anonymous Workers, Child and Family Service Specialist 

I had the opportunity to interview two people who worked on DHHS child abuse cases. They were chosen because they had a lot of experience with these cases. 

One interviewee is a child and family service specialist who has been working with Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services since 2009. At any given time, they are working on or helping with around 10 to 30 cases. Sometimes they get involved with the initial investigation and other times, they get involved after that investigation is wrapped up. 

They described to me how they use a structured decision-making tool that helps them in many different areas when first getting the case. This tool helps them go through the steps and things that they need to complete. This includes a safety assessment, risk assessment, family strength and needs assessment, completing a case plan, re-risk assessment, and reunification assessment. 

They also talked to me about how they determine if a claim is true or false when they are involved with the investigation. They must talk to the victim first, any other children in the home, the non-perpetrator, then finally the accused perpetrator. What drives the decision of whether the claim is founded or unfounded is whether it meets their criteria that describes different safety threats that would be considered founded. 

The child and family service specialist would then continue to work with the family – if possible, towards reunification. The first steps of this would be to talk to the parents about the safety concerns and have a conversation about why the child is being placed in a different home. They also discuss any family members that the child could be placed with outside that area of threat. Having a person that is connected to the family is important, but if they cannot find someone that is able to, they look into foster homes. 

One thing that really surprised me during this interview was the fact that, within the state of Nebraska, DHHS does not have the power to remove children. They do not have as much power as many people think they do. That power lies more within the court system and the judge’s hands. They told me about a case they had seen where the courts decided not to pursue adjudication, even when the department found that there was abuse happening. This meant that the children ended up back with the alleged perpetrator. This interview was very informative for me, and I enjoyed learning more from their perspective as a DHHS child and family service specialist.

My second interviewee is a former child and family support specialist. In this role, they were responsible for going out and accessing the safety of the child. They reported that they had investigated over 100 reports of child abuse and neglect. They also took the opportunity to explain the process to me, starting from when the hotline receives the call to where they come in. 

Once the hotline receives the call, they decide if the case will be accepted or not. If it is accepted, it goes to a supervisor who will assign it to a worker. The worker will then have around ten days to contact the family, face-to-face, if it is a priority 3 level case. They only have 5 days to make contact if it is a priority 2. A priority 1 case, on the other hand, will need to be contacted within 24 hours of them receiving the case. 

They told me one of the first steps that they take is contacting the school and getting information from them. This includes things like where they live, and any reports of tardiness or things like that. After getting the information from the school, they will usually go to the school to talk to the child. The child is the first person they contact to talk to about the situation, then they will usually talk to an uncle, aunt, or grandparent next before going to the parents. This helps get different perspectives on the case, and it helps the worker access the situation. They look at things like if the family has support networks, strengths, if the parent is working, and other things along those lines. 

The decision on what to do with a claim or case is not made by just the CFS worker. It also includes higher-ups like supervisors. They described the frustration of multiple claims being made about the same family, and said that sometimes it’s hard when they finish an investigation but then have to go out and talk to that family again because a new claim was accepted by the hotline workers. Overall, this interview was very informative to me about how CFS workers access claims, and they gave me some really great information. 

The two people that I interviewed who worked with DHHS had a very similar impact. They are very overworked in my opinion and handle a bunch of cases at one time. 

Cindy, CASA Worker

My final interview was with a CASA worker. This interview was set up by my supervisor for this fellowship. She introduced me to CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). 

My interview with Cindy Reed was very insightful regarding CASA workers’ involvement in child abuse cases. Cindy Reed has been working in the foster care field for over 15 years, and she has held many different positions in the field. 

A CASA worker gets involved around the time of adjudication, and their main goal is to advocate for the young people. They don’t hold an agenda when meeting with the young people they are advocating for. This helps them build those relationships and bring the young person’s wishes to the court. These workers continue to advocate so that these people are not silenced but their voices are lifted up to be heard. 

The part that stuck with me the most throughout this interview with Cindy Reed was when she was talking about families and reunification. She says that families may do the classes and get everything done on their to-do list, but they may not have come to grips with the trauma that their child has experienced, or even their part in that trauma. This can cause a negative relationship to continue, which is still not good for that child. She also talked about how if the parent is not willing to change, that relationship will still suffer. 

Finally, we talked about how quickly these cases end. Families could complete only two of the six phases, then the case is ended because they see the families are doing better. This means that the healing process never really gets to happen. Sometimes this causes families to be seen again in the system. Overall, Cindy Reed gave me so much information and was very passionate about what she talked to me about.

The interview with the CASA worker was amazing. She has some great information and I learned so much. I did not know that CASA existed before this fellowship, and I believe that it is a good thing that a child gets to have an advocate by their side. 


My thoughts on the child welfare system were very biased in many ways before these interviews due to my past. I think the biggest thing that this fellowship and these interviews changed was all of that bias. I realized that, although the system is still very much broken, there are some good people within the child welfare system that they do want to help. 

There are still quite a few things that I think need to change within this system. The first one is higher standards for those working on child abuse cases. No child should be ignored or left in an abusive situation, and I have seen many cases where that has happened. There need to be high standards and enough training to make sure this happens less. I understand mistakes happen, and abuse can be hidden, but that is not what happens in every case where a child is left behind. Another thing that needs to change is the treatment of employees. I think a lot of people who work in this system are overworked and underpaid for what they do. 

Now that I talked about what needs to change, I wanted to address what is working well. I think they have created a lot of rules and steps to go through throughout this whole process. I think having these steps and definitions laid out helps those with difficult cases make decisions. I also think there are more and more passionate people coming into this field, which I would love to see grow in the future. 

I think children can either be affected negatively or positively depending on who is working on their case and how the case is handled. Child abuse cases are so difficult for everyone involved, and it is never really black or white either. There is so much gray, especially when it comes to how children are affected by the system. 

Overall, I learned a lot from these interviews, and I am so glad that I got the opportunity to speak to all of these wonderful people. They gave me so much insight into all that goes on during a child abuse case that I did not know anything about, even as a child that was in the system.

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