A Lincoln state senator is calling for more oversight of Nebraska's child welfare system to address child sexual abuse of state wards and those adopted from foster care.
The Department of Health and Human Services responded quickly, balking at the idea of more legislative oversight, saying that already falls to the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee.
HHS has already taken steps to address the sexual abuse issues, CEO Courtney Phillips said.
Sen. Kate Bolz said Friday she will request that a special oversight committee be formed by the Legislature. And she will ask for performance and financial audits of the child welfare system.
Inspector General Julie Rogers issued a report this week after a nearly yearlong investigation that showed 50 verified child and youth sexual abuse victims in a recent three-year period. That number could actually be higher, she said.
The investigation also discovered cases beyond the 50 reported to the child abuse hotline that were either screened out incorrectly, or not investigated properly and so not substantiated. For others, officials just couldn't gather the needed evidence.
The investigation also showed attitudes toward sexual abuse of youth in state care that concerned her and her staff, Rogers said, including "problematic attitudes" among system professionals and caregivers toward child sexual abuse and children in the state's care.
Among the 50 abused children and youth noted 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 abuse was disclosed.
Some children reported that the abuse had occurred in a foster home, in an adoptive home or when they were under state guardianship. Some were in the juvenile justice system or in a home licensed by the department or at a Youth Residential Treatment Center.
Bolz will formally request the audits during the first week the Legislature is in session, she said. The session begins Jan. 3. She will also introduce a legislative resolution to call for a special oversight committee.
"As a state senator and representative on the Children’s Commission, I believe it is essential that we move forward with increased oversight by the legislative branch to promote the safety and best interests of children in state care," Bolz said in a news release. "I call on my colleagues to join these efforts.”
Bolz said Rogers' Dec. 27 report illustrates unacceptable performance of the child welfare system.
Coupled with the inspector general’s Sept. 13 report outlining problems related to child welfare caseloads, workloads and workforce, and the recent request for significant additional investment in the child welfare system, Bolz said, it creates concern regarding its overall well-being.
Phillips said there was no need for another oversight committee. The department's response to Rogers' report acknowledged needed improvements and it has taken steps to implement recommended changes over the past few months, including underscoring zero tolerance for sexual abuse of state wards.
The department extended an offer to Chairman Merv Riepe and the HHS committee to brief them on the response, she said. She has directed the division of children and family services to issue an annual report on the sexual abuse cases identified, including new steps for identifying and preventing abuse.
"DHHS has been open to working with senators and will continue to collaborate with them to ensure our system protects the children in our care," she said.
Phillips said the department is also working with Gov. Pete Ricketts to review the division's operations, including its finances, the details of which will be unveiled in coming days.