The investigator who reviews and critiques the state's child welfare system said this week that suicide attempts and sexual-abuse reports to her office continued to rise among children and youth in the past year.
"The continued rise in critical incidents associated with these two issues is disturbing," said Julie Rogers, Nebraska's inspector general for child welfare.
The number of sexual assaults reported to Rogers' office went from 29 in fiscal year 2017 to 45 in the most recent fiscal year, due in part to more formal requirements for reporting.
Between 2013 and 2016, Nebraska had 1,284 substantiated child sexual-abuse victims, Rogers' sixth annual report said. It's unknown how many of those were in the child welfare system.
In December, Rogers made 18 recommendations to improve response to sexual abuse within the system. The Department of Health and Human Services has made progress on 12 of those and completed two, she said.
"I want to commend them for their actions in the effort to prevent sexual abuse of children and youth in Nebraska," she said.
The report also showed that suicide attempts increased from 45 in fiscal year 2017 to 52 in the most recent fiscal year. Twenty-four of those attempts were by state wards, 21 were supervised by juvenile probation, six were both and one was confined at a youth treatment center.
When it comes to the state's most vulnerable children, Rogers said, vigilance and effort must equal the gravity of the incidents.
After decreasing in 2017, critical incidents increased again at the Youth Rehabilitation Treatment Center in Kearney, most involving escapes and assaults, according to the report. The facility reported 47 critical incidents, an increase from 22 in 2016-17.
The office of the inspector general for child welfare is entering its seventh year investigating allegations of wrongdoing by agencies and individuals, deaths and serious injuries of children in the system, and other critical incidents.
The Nebraska Legislature created the office in 2012 to review, critique and develop recommendations and legislation to improve serious problems within the state's child welfare system.
The office received reports on 520 cases in the past year, including 322 critical incident reports, 172 complaints and five grievances.
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Of the 322 critical incidents, 31 children had no prior involvement with the child welfare system, 38 were involved with HHS, 98 were in juvenile probation, 87 were state wards, 47 were in youth treatment centers and 21 were in both HHS and probation.
Sixteen child deaths were reported in fiscal year 2017-18, and six had enough contact with the child welfare or juvenile justice systems to warrant an investigation, the report said. Two were sudden, unexpected deaths of infants involved with HHS, and one was at a licensed child care facility. Two were suicides of children in the probation system.
Of 17 serious injuries, Rogers investigated three: a near-drowning of a child involved with HHS, the near-drowning of a state ward at a licensed child care center, and a head injury at a licensed child care center.
Rogers said HHS has made progress on continuing caseload and workload issues of child welfare employees, adding 24 caseworkers by changing other positions. Turnover is decreasing and compliance with caseloads improved, Rogers said.
Another important step the department has taken is the Nebraska Abusive Head Trauma/Shaken Baby Syndrome Prevention campaign, she said. Abusive head trauma and shaken baby syndrome are the leading causes of child abuse death in the country.
Since Matt Wallen took over as director of Children and Family Services in August 2017, Rogers said, the department has made changes in deciding when to give parents drug tests — not doing drug tests they may have done before — and what cases to accept from child abuse and neglect hotline reports for initial assessment.
More families are being accepted for noncourt-related services. And the number of court-involved cases is decreasing.
Wallen has said the division is shifting its practice to be more family-centered, to strengthen families "by treating potential risk factors," and to reduce trauma on children.
But Rogers said she's received multiple complaints related to the safety and well-being of children connected to those changes. She made a point to say formal written policies should accompany those changes, to ensure integrity, accountability and transparency.
The office of inspector general for child welfare includes Rogers, who is a juvenile justice expert and previously worked as an attorney for the Legislature's Judiciary Committee; Assistant Inspector General Sharen Saf and intake executive assistant Sarah Amsberry.
But given the number of cases referred to the inspector general for child welfare each year, the backlog of investigations and other assigned duties, Rogers said, the office has trouble providing timely and thorough oversight to the child welfare and juvenile justice system.