A report by the revamped Foster Care Review Office issued Saturday showed fewer children were in out-of-home care as of April 1 and were spending less time in what is supposed to be temporary shelter care.
But Kim Hawekotte, director of the agency, said the length of time between the removal of some children from their homes and their being returned home, adopted or placed in an established guardianship remains an issue.
Also problematic for kids are multiple reentries into the child welfare system, multiple placements and caseworker changes.
When the agency did its most recent quarterly check on the system, 3,854 children were in out-of-home care April 1. That's down from 4,341 on June 30, 2012.
Since then, as of Monday, the number of children in out-of-home care had decreased to 3,731.
According to the report, 11 percent of the 3,854 children had been out of their homes two to three years. Another 11 percent had been out of their homes three years or more.
Fifty-nine percent of children in out-of-home care for two years or more were 12 or younger, as were 46 percent out of the home for three years or more.
“I thought it would be more the teenage population, the 12 or older,” Hawekotte said.
Thomas Pristow, director of the division of Children and Family Services of the state Department of Health and Human Services, said the goal for every part of the child welfare system is for children to remain safely with their families or, if in out-of-home care, to go home as soon as safely possible.
"Every situation is different and DHHS, the courts, county attorneys, law enforcement, guardians ad litem and others take all issues into consideration when making these important decisions," he said.
Seventy-seven percent of the children were in out-of-home care for less than two years, he said.
"Our collective goal is to support children and families to be healthy and stable, reducing the time in out-of-home care with safety as a key factor,” Pristow said.
The report also showed racial disparity among kids lingering in the system. African Americans, for example, are 6 percent of the state's general population of children, but represent 29 percent of the children in out-of-home care for two years or longer and 40 percent in care for three years or longer.
Hawekotte said it is unknown why.
A number of factors could be affecting those long placements, including delays because fathers are not involved in the process from the beginning, or complications with the Indian Child Welfare Act, court reviews, adoption and guardianship subsidies.
The agency recommends putting together a team to analyze the barriers to finding permanent placements for children. That would include eliminating service gaps for both children and parents, assuring timely and accurate assessments, and finding ways to assist families with meeting requirements to reunify.
Families in poverty, for example, frequently have problems getting affordable housing, job skills, food, child care, therapy and substance abuse or mental health care.
The Legislature will do an interim study (LR261) this year of the barriers to permanent placements for children who have been placed out of the home and who are wards of the state.
The Health and Human Services Committee will consult with the Department of Health and Human Services, the courts, the Nebraska Children’s Commission and the Foster Care Review Office to review policies related to terminations of parental rights, HHS procedures related to permanent homes for children and the role of judges in plans for getting a child a permanent home.