The daily population of state wards has increased by 2.6 percent in the past six months, and in the southeast service area, which includes Lincoln, the increase was significantly more, at 11.2 percent.
The state Foster Care Review Office, in its most recent quarterly report, said the state needs to determine why more children are entering the child welfare system than leaving, and what in particular has been happening in the southeast and western service areas in the 19-month period between September 2015 and March.
The Department of Health and Human Services had an answer on Wednesday night. Those two areas, said spokesman Russ Reno, have the highest percentage of children removed because of their parents' drug and alcohol use.
"We will continue analyzing the circumstances impacting these families and identify approaches, such as our efforts to organize local services to help families in this situation," Reno said.
It's imperative, he said, that the department work with providers and community partners to address the issues before families enter the system.
As of March 31, 5,004 children were in foster care, including 3,973 state wards who entered the system because of abuse or neglect.
Kim Hawekotte, director of the review office, said the length of time in state care needs to decrease for all state wards in out-of-home care to reduce the long-lasting damage to children that comes with lingering in the child welfare system.
Having more children in the system for longer periods is costing the state added dollars at a time when the state is facing serious revenue shortfalls, she said.
Other recommendations from the review office for the Department of Health and Human Services, the Nebraska Families Collaborative and the Office of Probation Administration include:
* Focus on caseworker recruitment and retention to increase stability for youth in foster care;
* Minimize the number of moves between foster placements because disruptions are stressful and a source of negative outcomes for children;
* Analyze in-depth the reasons children enter out-of-home care and increase prevention and early intervention services to address those;
* Address why one in four children in the system experienced unsuccessful reunification attempts with parents;
* Involve the judicial system in achieving timely permanency for children. Extended time taken by courts on child welfare cases adds to the length of time children spend in out-of-home care;
* Examine why many of the youth served by the Office of Probation Administration are placed out of their homes without treatment. Identify what is preventing those families from getting in-home services.