An annual report on foster care by an independent review office showed nearly 17 percent of the youth in out-of-home care had five or more caseworker changes.
Additionally, nearly 37 percent had three to four caseworker changes.
"If we don't have a stable workforce for child welfare, it is very hard to make sure that children are getting what they need, that families can stay together and children and youth can stay safe," said Nebraska Inspector General for Child Welfare Julie Rogers.
Caseworker turnover has been one of her office's biggest concerns, she said. It affects caseloads and morale, she added.
"Caseworkers have a very hard job the way it is in working with struggling families and making sure children are safe," she said.
The Foster Care Review Office, an independent state agency, recommended the Department of Health and Human Services provide funding for adequate numbers of caseworkers and supervisors, ensure compliance with caseload standards, and develop adequate supports, training and mentoring for caseworkers.
Case management is critical to ensuring children’s safety while in out-of-home care, and is critical for children to achieve timely and appropriate permanency, the Foster Care Review report said. Effective case management is based on the creation of relationships and trust, which take time.
The report, released Friday, said worker changes can result in gaps in case information transfers and documentation, including accurate histories of parents' reactions during visits and parents' use of services.
In addition, new workers can lack knowledge of cases or quality and availability of services in the community. And it can cost money and time to recruit and train new workers or cover vacancies.
It was announced in October that HHS will partner with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to reduce turnover of caseworkers. The four-year program will aid the agency in improving outcomes for children through a recruitment and retention strategy.
"We also are looking at several other approaches to make child welfare work more family-friendly for case managers, such as flexible hours, providing support for weekend work with part-time positions, and tiered career path opportunities," said HHS spokesman Russ Reno.
More than 7,900 individual Nebraska children or youth were in out-of-home care through a state system for one or more days during 2016-17, according to the report. And 565 of those children left care and returned to care during the fiscal year.
The child welfare system saw a 5 percent increase in state wards in out-of-home care from July 2016 to June 2017. The western service area saw the largest increase of 22.5 percent, followed by the southeast service area increase of 12 percent. Douglas and Sarpy counties had the most-stable population over the previous fiscal year, according to the report.
In the southeast Nebraska service area that includes Lincoln, the average daily population of state wards throughout the fiscal year ranged from a low of 687 in August 2016 to a high of 803 in March.
On June 30, the end of the fiscal year, 3,960 state wards were in out-of-home care or trial home visits. Most of those kids had experienced a significant level of trauma prior to their removal from their parents' homes, the foster care office said.
The report noted it was particularly concerning that 27 percent of the children leaving care during the fiscal year had been in out-of-home care for two years or longer.
"From a child’s perspective, this is a very long time. Furthermore, Nebraska statutes clearly state that other permanency objectives must be considered when a child has been out-of-home for 15 out of 22 months," the report said.
Minority children continued to be overrepresented in out-of-home placements. The representation of black and Native children was more than double their representation in the population. For children who identify as multi-racial, their representation in out-of-home care was three times their percentage of the general population.
These children have drawn the short straw for their young lives.
Many kids in the child welfare system have had hard experiences and a history of trauma, living with parents who had serious untreated or undertreated mental health issues and chronically abused drugs or alcohol, the report pointed out. They did not have their most basic needs met, including food, clothing, housing, medical care, supervision or sanitation, or lived in chaotic, stressful homes, moving often and unpredictably, or witnessing domestic violence.
Some were physically or sexually abused.
Even after entering the child welfare system, many moved multiple times between foster placements, which could further damage their ability to trust and build relationships. Many also were separated from their brothers and sisters, or teachers and classmates.