There was good news in 2008 about children in foster care in Nebraska.

The number of foster children in out-of-home care dropped to 4,620, compared with 5,043 the year before. And 100 more of them -- 572 -- found permanent adoptive homes.

As of Sunday, children in out-of-home care was down even further, to 4,308.

"Really, there are some positive things going on in the system," said Carol Stitt, executive director of the Foster Care Review Board, which released its 2008 annual report Tuesday.

But in the middle of the good news, according to the report, was a disturbing trend: The percentage of children who returned to foster care, many of them younger than 5, increased to 41 percent in 2008.

That percentage is the highest in the past six years.

"That is a troubling figure. There is no way around it," said Mario Scalora, a board member from Lincoln.

If children have to come into foster care a second time, he said, it means supports put in place and reunification efforts did not work. Children must build rapport with yet another set of providers, learn new rules and wonder what is going to happen next.

"We demand more of our youth than of ourselves sometimes," he said.

That trend results from the high number of cases handled by caseworkers, Stitt said. It's also indicative of whether the state is adequately monitoring parents' compliance with needed improvements.

The report cited the case of "Quentin," age 6, who was removed from his mother four times and lived in 13 different foster homes.

Each time the mother stopped intensive therapy, things at home would deteriorate and the child would be removed again. He has now been diagnosed with attachment disorder and hyperactivity, not uncommon in children suffering significant abuse and changes in caregivers, the report said.

Children may be returning to parents who have not shown they are going to sustain needed changes, Stitt said.

To adequately monitor that, the state or private providers must have stable visitation workers who can keep track of those visits week to week to week, she said. Workers who do not pay attention or who change every week cannot accurately document parents' progress, she said.

Children too often have "cookie cutter" plans, rather than ones specific to their cases, the report said.

Todd Reckling, Department of Health and Human Services director of children and family services, said some of the problems highlighted by the report are exactly what foster care reform is seeking to address.

Working with private providers, the state hopes to see the majority of children remain in their homes.

"I'm very excited about the reform effort," Reckling said. "I agree too many kids are in out-of-home care. We want to have more in their homes safely, with services provided there."

The report also highlighted the need for more funding for mental health services for kids traumatized because they are removed from their homes and parents, then moved around in foster care. Children's mental health care is often denied by the state's managed care provider because behavioral health concerns are not "medically necessary," the report said.

Among the children in foster care last year, 796 entered because of their behaviors.

Nearly 46 percent of foster children were removed from their homes in 2008 because parents were abusing drugs, including methamphetamine or alcohol. The Foster Care Review Board recommended expanding rehabilitation and mental health facilities across the state to treat parents struggling with substance abuse.

"That is an astounding figure," said Lancaster County Attorney Gary Lacey.

Drug courts have been sometimes successful in helping these parents, but they don't always have adequate funding. And some areas in the state don't have such courts.

The state needs a system that gives parents an opportunity to correct their problems, but if they don't their parental rights need to be terminated, Lacey said.

"That isn't the case right now," he said. "It seems like we're just spinning our wheels."

Oversight of private contractors as they take over day-to-day operations of foster care has been a concern of the board. Recommendations included setting up basic qualifications for the provider's employees, including educational requirements. Background checks should also be done on all employees of private providers, the board said.

Board Chairman Georgie Scurfield said contracts with private providers need to be monitored for compliance and quality care of children .

In Lancaster County, 942 children were in foster care in 2008, 186 of them for two or more years. Also, 345 were removed from their homes more than once.

Reach JoAnne Young at 473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.

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