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The state inspector general for child welfare is investigating child sexual abuse and exploitation of children in state-licensed facilities and the child welfare system, Julie Rogers announced Wednesday. 

Rogers said the investigation, prompted by an accumulation of 36 sexual abuse reports since July 2013, will show whether adequate steps are being taken by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to prevent and respond to abuse of youth in the state’s care.

The sexual abuse or exploitation of children included youth placed in state-licensed facilities and group homes, and youth in foster homes and adopted from the child welfare system. 

The sexual abuse cases have been reported to law enforcement and investigated. Several examples in that time period include foster parents and state facility workers who have been prosecuted for sexual assault or failing to protect a child in their care.

This year, a 34-year-old Beatrice woman was sentenced to two years in prison for negligent child abuse after her boyfriend developed a sexual relationship with her 14-year-old foster child when he stayed at her house.

A year ago, an Omaha foster father was convicted of two counts of first-degree sexual assault of a child for impregnating his 13-year-old foster daughter.

And in August, a former therapist at Kearney's Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center was arrested for inappropriate sexual contact with a teen at the center. She resigned her position as a licensed provisional mental health practitioner shortly before she was arrested.  

The number of reports that came to the attention of Rogers' office rose to the level of needing to do a full investigation of the system and how the state protects these children and youth, she said. The assaults and exploitations have involved foster parents, adoptive parents of foster children, group home or facility staff, and other youths in the system. 

"These are horrific, or can be very horrific, situations, and there are numbers to show it's not just once in a great while," she said. 

"What we're doing right now is looking to see if the system has gaps or if the system can improve to further protect these kids from sexual victimization."

She notified HHS and has asked for more data, and the office will begin to conduct interviews, gather and analyze data, and review all relevant information. The investigation will examine whether the state has enough safeguards to pick its caregivers, Rogers said. 

Taylor Gage, Gov. Pete Ricketts' spokesman, said Wednesday afternoon the well-being of the children in the state’s care is of paramount importance.

"In every case, DHHS conducts a thorough review of reported abuse so we can improve protections for state wards, and we welcome the (Office of Inspector General’s) additional review and recommendations on how we can continue to improve Nebraska’s child welfare system.”

HHS spokesman Russ Reno also said the care and well-being of children in the state's custody is of the utmost importance to the agency, which has an open relationship with the inspector general. Rogers' office receives all the department's critical incident reports, and HHS has provided the requested data for the upcoming report, he said.

HHS has been working on reducing the number of out-of-home placements and to make improvements, Reno said. 

Those improvements included the alternative response program, the new intensive family placement, and an assessment of services available to families. Early next year, the department will introduce new services aimed at keeping children in their homes, Reno said.

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"We look forward to continue working with (Rogers) and welcome the recommendations from the report," he said. 

Recommendations by the inspector general's office will be made public in September, as part of the inspector general's annual report.

“We know that children and youth in the state’s care — both in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems — are particularly vulnerable," Rogers said. "Many have already been victims of abuse or neglect, have experienced trauma, or both."

The investigation will focus on better understanding when and why certain youth under the protection of the state are being sexually abused and victimized, she said. The purpose of the investigation is to identify areas for improvement and how Nebraska can better prevent and respond to abuse of these children, she said. 

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, who has introduced bills aimed at inspector general position functions, said the investigation is exactly what lawmakers hoped Rogers' office would do, looking at data and digging to see what is creating any unsafe conditions for children. 

"One sexual abuse when we take freedoms away from youth and take them out of their homes is too many, let alone 36 in three years," he said. 

If it weren't for Rogers and the inspector general position, the sexual abuse issue might not be visible, he said. 

"Kudos to her for the great things she does in watching out for our youth," Krist said. 

Anyone with concerns about the safety of a child should immediately call the Nebraska Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline: 1-800-652-1999. Those with information relevant to the inspector general's investigation can contact the office through an online form, by email (oig@leg.ne.gov), or by phone (1-855-460-6784).

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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