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Rise in serious injuries a concern for Nebraska child welfare, watchdog says

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A state watchdog has raised concerns about an increase in serious injuries among children involved in Nebraska's child welfare system during the past year. 

But Inspector General of Nebraska Child Welfare Jennifer Carter said, in her latest annual report released Thursday, that the state has made improvements in dealing with two previous crises. 

Those were the formerly troubled state institutions for juvenile offenders, called the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers, and the now-terminated contract with St. Francis Ministries, a Kansas-based nonprofit that was tasked with managing the care of children in the Omaha metro area. 

"In general, after two years of major system-level challenges ... the child welfare and YRTC systems appear to be more stable than they have been in over two years," Carter said. "However, the absence of crises does not equate to an absence of significant issues."

As an example of issues, she pointed to two deaths and 10 serious injuries among youngsters who were current state wards or had been involved with the child welfare system at some point in the previous 12 months. The children ranged in age from infants to a 17-year-old who was injured in a shooting.

Carter said it was the highest number of serious injury and death cases since 2015 that her office is required by state law to investigate. All involved possible abuse or neglect. Her office is not required to look into deaths and injuries that occurred by chance.

Her office is still investigating the cases, she said, but pointed to the disruptions and stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as a potential factor behind the increase. She noted that many professionals are reporting rising mental health problems. 

"We are only beginning to understand all the long-term ramifications of the pandemic," Carter said.

She also noted an increase in incidents and complaints related to cases in which child welfare officials had used a different, less adversarial approach to working with families. In the approach, called alternative response, child welfare workers help families without taking them to court or making a finding that there had been abuse or neglect in the family.

Four serious injury cases involved children whose families had gone through alternative response in the previous 12 months, Carter said, noting that her office has not received such reports in the past.

However, she noted that Nebraska's use of alternative response has increased significantly in the last few years. In 2021, the state handled more child abuse and neglect cases through alternative response than were substantiated and handled through the traditional process.

Among other issues, Carter said the availability, stability and quality of placements for children has become a growing concern. She said there have been reports of problems placing even children who have been easy to find care for in the past, such as infants. 

High caseloads and turnover among case workers also is a concern, she said. In June, only 38.6% of workers in Douglas and Sarpy counties had caseloads that complied with state law. 

Continued failure to meet state caseload standards contributed to Nebraska's decision to end its contract with St. Francis Ministries, which was responsible for child welfare case management in the Omaha area. The decision was announced in December and all of the cases were transferred to state workers over the next six months. 

In a previous report, Carter had called for an end to the contract and to Nebraska's experiment with private case management. In the newly released report, she said incidents and complaints about St. Francis that her office reviewed had confirmed that ending the contract "was the correct choice."

The new report also noted signs that Nebraska's juvenile offender institutions were stabilizing, three years after Department of Health and Human Services officials removed all the female offenders from the state's Geneva institution after staff shortages, inadequate programming and deteriorating buildings combined to make the facility unlivable. The girls were moved to the formerly male-only juvenile offender center in Kearney, where they remained for 18 months.

The state has since closed the Geneva facility and moved the female offenders to a center in Hastings. The state also opened a facility in Lincoln for juvenile offenders needing more intensive mental health care.

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