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Report finds ‘disturbing’ increase in sexual abuse, suicide among Nebraska children in state care

September 20, 2018

Reports of sexual abuse and suicidal behavior among children in the care of the state increased again last year, according to a report issued this week by the state’s watchdog over Nebraska’s child welfare system.

Julie Rogers, the inspector general of Nebraska child welfare, described the increase as “disturbing” in a statement accompanying the report.

The report also notes a reversal in improvements at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Kearney. Problems there had been improving, but there was an increase in “critical incidents” last year, according to the report. Rogers said the change at Kearney is “troubling” and merits monitoring.

There was good news in the report, as well. Caseload numbers have declined and turnover is decreasing, as the state has added two dozen caseworkers. However, despite the improvements, the state remains out of compliance with caseload standards.

Additionally, in terms of child sexual assault, the Department of Health and Human Services has made progress on 14 of 18 previous recommendations made by the inspector general.

Matt Wallen, director of the Division of Children and Family Services, said it is good to see that progress acknowledged in the report.

The Division of Child and Family Services “continues to look for opportunities to assure safety for children and strengthen parents’ ability to safely raise their children,” Wallen said in a statement Tuesday. Employees within the division have been “working hard to engage parents and provide necessary services to ensure the best outcome possible for Nebraska’s children.”

The report, which was released Monday, covers the 12 months ending June 30.

Sexual abuse of children is a national problem, the report notes, citing estimates that one in 10 children will be subject to sexual abuse before age 18, usually by someone they know and trust.

For sexual abuse cases, the report focused on children who were wards of the state; were placed in a state-run facility or a licensed, residential facility; or were adopted or in foster care.

The inspector general received 45 reports of child sexual abuse in 2017-18, up from 29 the year before. Few details were released on the cases.

In most instances, the children were reported as victims. But in seven cases, they were reported as the perpetrator.

Tougher reporting rules could be a factor in the increase in number, the report notes. In 2018, the Legislature passed a law requiring that sexual abuse cases be filed with the Inspector General’s Office.

During the 2017-18 period, there were two suicides and 52 suicide attempts involving youths whose care falls under the state umbrella. The previous year, there had been one suicide and 45 suicide attempts. In 2015-16, two suicides and 21 attempts were reported.

The 52 attempts involved 49 youths, three of whom made multiple attempts.

At the youth center in Kearney, there were 47 critical incidents reported last year. Of those incidents, 19 involved escapes and 14 involved assaults.

In the larger picture, the number escaping from the Kearney center has been declining over the past three calendar years, said Mark LaBouchardiere, director of facilities for HHS. In 2016, there were 36, in 2017 there were 17 and so far this year there have been four. Other escapes involve youths on furlough or otherwise already outside the center.

Additionally, LaBouchardiere said, youth assaults on staff are declining.

The total number of critical incidents last year at Kearney was more than double the 22 reported the previous year. However, it was less than half the number reported in 2015-16, when 117 instances were reported.

Additional findings of the report:

Nebraska is making progress in educating the public about shaken baby deaths. The state this year launched a campaign to educate people about shaken babies, the No. 1 cause of child abuse death nationally.Eleven death investigations were completed and included in the report. Most were related to medical problems. The deaths were reported between September 2013 and August 2017.

Nebraska lawmakers created the inspector general position in 2012 to act as a watchdog over the child welfare system. The move was among the responses to a system in turmoil following a failed attempt at privatizing child welfare case management across the state.

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