LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska’s child welfare system is still struggling to serve the needs of its clients because of large caseloads and a lack of cooperation among agencies, according to a state report released Wednesday.
The Office of the Inspector General of Nebraska Child Welfare also said there was an increase between January 2013 and June 2015 in cases involving medical problems and injuries, suicide attempts, self-harming behavior and children exposed to drugs.
The problems persist despite increased state funding and recent changes in state law intended to reduce caseloads.
“Until Nebraska’s leaders figure out how to lower caseloads, the child welfare system — and the children and families it is designed to serve — will continue to suffer,” said Julie Rogers, inspector general for Nebraska’s child welfare system.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services said the report represents the “worst of the worst” outcomes, but that the department met all six of the federal child welfare performance measures that were in place at the time.
“The system is stronger than it was and every day we are working to improve,” public information officer Russ Reno said, adding that hundreds of children live safely with their families and that the department is committed to working with other groups to improve services.
The inspector general’s office said it investigated 22 cases in the 2015-16 fiscal year involving children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems who died or were seriously injured. Another four died in daycare facilities. All but one of the incidents happened between January 2013 and June 2015.
The report detailed some of the most serious cases, including a 4-year-old who suffered a skull fracture and bruises all over his body after his father beat him.
In the six months before the beating, the state’s child abuse hotline received 11 reports alleging that the father was abusing the boy, but the report said the state didn’t respond fast enough because of processing errors by the hotline and authorities who misinterpreted the child’s injuries and failed to gather key evidence.
In another case, a 16-year-old state ward hung herself in her family’s home and an autopsy showed amphetamines in her system and a blood-alcohol level that was nearly twice the legal limit. Child welfare inspectors concluded that little was done to ensure the girl received adequate mental health treatment. She also had three different caseworkers in the month before her death, leading to “instability and mismanagement during a critical period,” the report said.
“Too many of the children and families touched by our child welfare and juvenile justice systems experience tragic outcomes,” Rogers said.
Investigators found numerous instances of agencies competing with one another or undercutting another agency’s efforts, using the example of local law enforcement and DHHS not always coordinating appropriately when responding to child abuse reports.
The state’s probation office and Department of Health and Human Services have no statewide policy on how to handle cases in which they’re both involved.