State Inspector General Julie Rogers said Wednesday she was "deeply troubled" by how high child welfare caseloads continue to affect Nebraska children, families and staff. 

In her fifth annual report, released Wednesday, the child welfare watchdog also said she's concerned about the rising number of attempted suicides among youths in the system.

The office received 45 reports of suicide attempts by 38 children in the 2016-17 fiscal year.  

Rogers was also critical of the Office of Probation's lack of response to her previous recommendations. The office fired back that it has no obligation to respond to Rogers.

The office of inspector general was created by the Legislature in 2012 to provide accountability and oversight for child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Rogers and her staff investigate complaints and allegations of wrongdoing by agencies and individuals, deaths and serious injuries of state wards and children in the system and other critical incidents. 

On the issue of child welfare caseloads, Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Russ Reno said the department is working to combat its high turnover rate and expeditiously fill vacancies.

It's looking closely at its training, career paths and ways to help improve job satisfaction, he said, and talking to team members in the field about ways to alleviate their workload.

"We're looking at a lot of options right now," Reno said. "We appreciate the hard work of our team members out there. They are really dedicated to helping children and families." 

Rogers also noted concerns about the Office of Probation, which handles youths involved in juvenile justice cases. She has issued two reports since 2015 on the deaths of youths supervised by Probation, and made 13 recommendations, including how to better serve youth with developmental disabilities, along with ideas for improving internal processes. 

There's no evidence Probation had taken steps to implement any of the recommendations or address issues identified in the investigations into the deaths of two youths supervised by the agency, she said. 

Last fiscal year, the office investigated seven child deaths, including the suicide of a 17-year-old supervised by the Office of Probation who was given alternatives to detention.

Rogers found those alternatives were different from those listed in law and policies. It did not address the youth's significant mental health problems, and restrictions placed on him contributed to his social isolation and perception of being a burden, she said. 

Another youth supervised by Probation was the victim of a homicide.

The Nebraska Judicial Branch was sharp in its response to Rogers' report, saying that while it appreciates input from Rogers, it alone is responsible for probation services. Her report has no credibility, its statement said. 

"Nebraska judges, the Administrative Office of the Courts and Probation, and the local probation offices are doing a superb job and work in the real world and make difficult decisions and as such, have collectively light years more experience than anyone in the (Office of the Inspector General's) office in working with children and families in the court," the statement said.

Reform is a process, officials said, not an event, and their efforts have been recognized and assisted by national partners. 

"It is unfortunate that many facts as to Probation’s collaborative efforts and a recent written response to (Rogers' office) were grossly omitted from the 2016-17 annual report," the statement said. 

Even so, the recommendations have been thoroughly considered by Probation, it said.

In her report, Rogers praised progress made in the Youth Residential Treatment Centers. In the past 12 months, she said, the centers have met all nine of her recommendations on improvements to oversight and operations, taking steps to stabilize and improve the centers.

"This year the (Office of Inspector General) noted a large decrease in the number of escapes and other concerning incidents at YRTC-Kearney, in particular," Rogers said. 

Between July 1, 2016, and June 30 this year, Rogers' office reviewed 339 critical incidents. In addition to the seven deaths, it also opened investigations into three serious injuries.

It received 172 complaints, primarily related to the Department of Health and Human Services from parents, grandparents and other relatives of children, many of them about child abuse investigations and placement of children. 

As of June 30, Rogers' office had 34 death and serious injury investigations pending. That work has limited investigations into conditions at residential facilities, abuse and neglect in foster homes, and performance of private providers, Rogers said. 

Rogers has been appointed to a second five-year term, and said she will continue to provide accountability to the child welfare and juvenile justice system, and promote transparency.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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