Ninety-three Nebraska children have been out of their homes, in foster care, for five years or more.
That is a great concern to Kim Hawekotte, executive director of the Nebraska Foster Care Review Office, and it disturbs her even more when she considers that nearly 20% of them were under 4 years old when they were removed from their homes.
These are the kids that are truly stuck in the child welfare system, she said.
"I did not anticipate that almost 50% of them were under the age of 7 when they came into out-of-home care," Hawekotte said.
The Foster Care Review Office started a study of those kids about nine months ago. At that time, even more were in long-term foster care, although some have now aged out of the system or achieved some type of permanency.
The study results are published in the office's quarterly report.
The study will be beneficial to the state, Hawekotte said, to know what parts of the system are not working for these kids, and to come up with solutions.
The state has done its own deep dive into identifying what keeps kids in the system long-term, focusing on those who have been in foster care three years or more.
Director of Children and Family Services Matt Wallen said the department looked into it for a year between the summer of 2017 to the summer of 2018, and was able to find permanent homes for more than 175 children during that time.
Many of the kids in the Foster Care Review Office study have high needs, Hawekotte said, with the majority having some sort of physical, mental or developmental disability.
"So, are we treating our kids right in the child welfare system? Should they be in a different system?" she said.
Sixty-one of those foster children — about 66% — are from the Omaha and Sarpy County area, and 22 are from the Lincoln area. African American and multiracial children are disproportionately represented, with more that half of the girls in long-term care African American.
The most common reason the kids were removed from their parents' care was neglect, a broad range of serious acts in which parents don't provide for their children's basic physical, medical, educational and emotional needs. Physical and sexual abuse are also more common with this group of kids, the study showed.
Another serious problem for the children is the number of placements in the system they experience. Nearly 85% changed foster homes more than five times. Nearly 10% had more than 30 placements, with the average time in each placement less than three months. Seventeen percent had 21-30 placements.
"One of these kids had 60 placements," Hawekotte said. "They just constantly move, move, move, every two to three months. That's not right."
Think about it, she said. A child moving 30 times is not going to be in school much, and will be behind.
"So did the system create the (developmental) delay, or did they come in that way?" she said.
The study is being done in two parts, she said, with the first a gathering of demographics, and then a deeper look with an analysis that will be completed in the fall. Not many states have done extensive research with this population, she said.
The office will look at what psychotropic drugs kids are given, how many therapists or psychiatrists they've had, and why they may not be getting better.
"What was that tipping point that we as a system missed?" she said.
Wallen said some of the barriers for children being able to exit the system the department found are the frequency of court review hearings, which can take six months or longer; parental addiction; lack of parental visitation; timeliness of filing termination of parental rights; and a lack of services in more rural areas.
The department will overcome the barriers by improving family engagement skills and family team meetings, and collaboration among everyone involved in a case, he said.
"(We will) run a pilot in certain jurisdictions to increase the frequency of court review hearings to 90 days," Wallen said.