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A report by Voices for Children in Nebraska shows children of minority groups are more likely to be the subject of maltreatment reports to the state's child abuse/neglect hotline.

The report, "Equality Before the Law: Race and Ethnicity in the Front End of Nebraska’s Child Welfare System," examined calls to the child abuse and neglect hotline and the immediate child welfare system response.

Either children of color are experiencing greater rates of maltreatment, or people are more likely to report families of color to the hotline whether or not there’s maltreatment, or both, said Juliet Summers, policy coordinator at Voices for Children.

"None of these options are good,” Summers said. "The striking disproportionality among calls is troubling."

Nebraska law requires mandatory reporting of incidents of suspected maltreatment of children.

Children of color are overrepresented in such hotline calls not only in Nebraska, but nationally, the report said.

"This occurs in spite of evidence that families of color are not more likely than white families to engage in child maltreatment," the report pointed out.

Matt Wallen, director of the division of children and family services, said the Department of Health and Human Services serves all families, regardless of race, with a focus on providing services and works to keep families together when it’s safe to do so.

"The goal of our child abuse and neglect hotline is to ensure the safety and well-being of all children that come to our attention," he said. "We want to ensure that our response is culturally and linguistically appropriate for the children and families we serve."

That is achieved through increased family involvement and community support, he said.

Wallen said statewide, the number of children removed from family homes has been reduced by 16% in the past two years, demonstrating HHS’ commitment to the goal of keeping families together when it is safe to do so.

The report also examined services and interventions offered to families through the child welfare system after a call is made. It found maltreatment reports made about black children were the least likely to result in a finding that parents were abusive or neglectful, but most likely to be recommended for services and interventions by the state.

It begs the question of whether kids and families are getting correct interventions, or if the child welfare system has unduly imposed itself in families’ lives, Summers said.

Poverty is highly correlated with child welfare involvement, the report said. It leads to increased rates of actual maltreatment, and is also frequently mistaken for neglect, resulting in increased rates of child maltreatment reports.

In 2017, about 14%, or about 70,000 of 501,131 Nebraska children, lived in poverty.

* Nearly 6% of Nebraska's children were black, and they made up 13.8% of children living in poverty. The report showed that 14.1% of abuse/neglect calls involved black children.

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* White children accounted for about 70% of the state's child population, and 41% of those who lived in poverty were white. Of the reports to the hotline, 52% involved white children.

* Multiracial Nebraskans made up 6.6% of the child population, and 6.4% of those who lived in poverty were multiracial. More than 13% of hotline calls involved multiracial children.

* Latino children made up 14.5% of the state's children and about 28.5% of children who lived in poverty, with about 9% of hotline calls involving Latino kids. The Native child population in Nebraska is 1.1%, and they made up 3.3% of children living in poverty. About 3.6% of the maltreatment calls involved Native children.

The poverty experienced by families and children of color, based on historical barriers to opportunity, may increase their exposure to social services, such as financial or housing assistance, which may further increase their exposure to child welfare involvement, according to the report. But poverty alone does not account for the disproportionate hotline calls involving minority children, the report said. 

"Physical neglect is by far the most common type of maltreatment reported for children of all races and ethnicities in Nebraska," the report said.

The information collected by Voices for Children doesn't offer reasons why the disparities are occurring, and doesn't offer solutions, said Taylor Givens-Dunn, community engagement specialist at Voices for Children.

"Racial and ethnic disparity will only be reduced when the communities that have been most affected by our state systems are truly heard and empowered to identify and implement solutions,” she said.

The report recommends ensuring the interventions and services offered to children and their families are culturally competent, easily accessible, and not a “cookie cutter” approach, but built on individual characteristics, needs and goals of each family unit.

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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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