Edison Red Nest III, 35, spent years of his youth in what he called "the system" — detention, youth residential treatment centers, jail, group homes, prison.
Sober for nine years, he lives in Alliance and owns Native Futures now, working with Native and non-Native young people on wellness, business opportunities and other ways to give them better futures, doing what they can for people.
"There's a lot of injustice that's happening in western Nebraska," he told senators on the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on Friday, at a hearing on disparities in Nebraska's child welfare system.
Services to help families in the system don't really extend out west, he said. A whole population of Native children and adults are being left out.
"We are doing the best we can with what we can," Red Nest told senators.
That includes helping families with their most-basic needs. Even doing small things — fixing lights, unplugging drains, getting a child glasses — gives them one less stressor to worry about, reduces the chaos in a family's life.
"People here don't understand," he said. "It's a lot different in western Nebraska and nobody's talking about it."
Omaha Sen. Sara Howard introduced a resolution (LR418) to study the continued racial and ethnic disparities in the state's foster care and juvenile justice system, especially for youth and families that are African-American, Native and Latino.
Taylor Givens-Dunn with Voices for Children in Nebraska told the committee that families of color are no more likely to abuse or neglect their children than white families. But they are removed from their homes at higher rates, and frequently these families have less access to relevant and helpful services.
"The social cost of this inequity is devastating to children of color, their families ... and society," she said.
Kim Hawekotte, executive director of the Foster Care Review Office, an independent agency that in the past year reviewed case files of more than 4,500 children in out-of-home care, said there's no question that minority children are overrepresented in foster care.
And they stay in out-of-home care longer than their counterparts.
* African-American children are 2.6 percent of the Nebraska population but make up almost 15 percent of children in out-of-home care and 24 percent of children that stay two years or longer.
* A higher percentage of Native children are also in care than their overall population percentage would indicate, she said.
* Those children are more likely to be separated from their siblings, a significant hardship on children.
* As of August, more than 50 percent of children in foster homes were racial or ethnic minorities, but children and family-services specialists were 85 percent white. Nearly 15 percent of kids in foster homes are African-American, compared with 5 percent of specialists who are African-American.
* Twenty-five percent of African-American youth in the juvenile justice system are in out-of-home care.
Hawekotte said the state needs to look at the availability of services for minority children and families, and culturally sensitive services for minority children.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, a member of the committee, said white people make assumptions and presumptions about minority children without knowing anything about them other than their complexion.
"When they see this, presumptions, assumptions occur and conduct and treatment will follow that," he said.
Nedhal al-Kadahy, 20, was put into foster care at age 5 and said she experienced racism multiple times. One family changed its mind about taking her when they learned she couldn't eat pork, she said. And another family forced her to go to their church, even though she did not practice their religion but was Muslim.
She also had caseworkers who didn't respect her family's culture and customs, she said.
Misty Frazier with the Nebraska Indian Children Welfare Coalition said training of caseworkers on cultural identity and racism is needed.
But how do you teach and train cultural competency? It has to come from your heart, Frazier said.
"How do you teach that to people who don't know and don't understand?"
Programs are needed to keep families out of the court system, that provide more prevention and intervention.
"Once they've entered into the court system they're railroaded right to (parental) termination. Once they're in that system it's hard to stop that," she said.
Howard said the challenge beyond reducing child welfare caseloads, paying caseworkers more and offering more training is addressing racism and how it is impacting children.
"I think the sooner we acknowledge it, the sooner we can consider the solutions that are within our power to talk about," she said.