If Nebraska didn’t have an inspector general for child welfare, how would people know 50 children and youth in the child-welfare system were sexually abused over a recent three-year period?
That’s the question Omaha Sen. Sara Howard asked Nebraska's children and family services director, Matt Wallen, on Wednesday during a briefing of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee.
Inspector General Julie Rogers announced last month a nearly yearlong investigation her office undertook in December 2016 had verified 50 victims of sexual abuse of children and youth in the system.
Without Rogers' work, for the state to uncover what she did, "it would really have to be self-discovery, and then we kind of go through and analyze our data and try to identify trend information ... if we see an uptick in one thing or another," Wallen said.
The Department of Health and Human Services has collected data and will be monitoring it, he said. It also has a robust, continuous quality-improvement operation that assesses how well the department is doing and where it needs improvements. It is always updating policies and memos to make changes, he said.
Among the 50 abused children and youth in the report, 27 were state wards and youth in residential placements, and 23 were in adoptive or guardian homes. They ranged in age from 4 to 18 when the abuse was disclosed.
Child sexual abuse generally includes anything from rape to molestation, sexual touching and coercing or persuading a child to engage in any type of sexual act. It includes exposure to pornography, voyeurism and sexual talk by phone or internet.
Rogers found half of the child and youth victims were sexually abused by caregivers. The cases involved sexual assault by fathers, foster brothers, foster fathers, a foster mother, adoptive fathers, other state wards, uncles, unrelated older men and women, older brothers, grandfathers, group home workers and a therapist.
Wallen, who briefed the legislative committee on his division's response to the inspector general's investigation and to her annual report, said the department provided Rogers 1,200 to 1,300 cases that involved sexual allegations, and she and her staff looked through each one.
When the department sees such incidents, it goes back to home studies and data looking for any red flags or information it missed, he said.
"We have that zero tolerance. We don't want to see any of these reports," he said.
But it's a difficult thing to identify in some cases.
At the same time, the department gets frequent reports on questionable behavior by someone in the presence of a child, and the department sends a staff member to look into it, he said. It may lead to an update of a child's safety plan.
In the briefing, Wallen emphasized the rigorous licensing process for foster parents, which takes four to five months, and includes 10 weeks of training.
He also outlined the screening priorities for sexual concerns about children and youth, including sexual abuse, inappropriate sexual acting out by children and sexual exploitation.