LINCOLN — At least 50 Nebraska children, some as young as 4 years old, have suffered sexual abuse while in the state’s care or after being placed in an adoptive or guardianship home.
That’s according to an investigative report released Wednesday by Julie Rogers, the inspector general of Nebraska child welfare.
All of the cases were reported to the state’s child abuse hotline from July 2013 through October 2016 and all were substantiated, either by the courts or by child welfare officials.
Rogers said the true scope of sexual abuse of current and former state wards may never be known. Many cases are not reported and others cannot be substantiated.
But she said her office’s investigation concluded that the child welfare system has “concerning deficiencies” in its ability to prevent and respond to the sexual abuse of children in state care.
“The state becomes involved to protect children,” Rogers said. “Any case of maltreatment, including sexual abuse, of a state ward is unacceptable.”
The Inspector General’s Office launched the investigation last year after getting a stream of reports concerning sexual abuse of youths with current or former involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
The study sought to determine whether the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services and others involved with the child welfare system were taking adequate steps to prevent and respond to sexual abuse of children in state care.
Matt Wallen, the children and family services director for HHS, said the department makes every effort to prevent the abuse of children, whether in the community or state care.
“I want to assure the public that we prioritize the safety of every youth in our care,” he said, while noting that state records show foster children suffer only 2.87 cases of maltreatment for every 100,000 days in state care.
State Sen. Merv Riepe of Ralston, chairman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said the inspector general’s report is important.
“Before we can solve a problem, we need to identify a problem,” he said.
Riepe expressed confidence that HHS officials will take appropriate steps to deal with the problems pointed out in the report.
Among the deficiencies found:
» Both caregivers and child welfare professionals held problematic attitudes about child sexual abuse. Some assumed that children who made allegations were lying or acting out because they were troubled. Others blame children for causing the abuse.
» Some child sexual abuse allegations were not appropriately reported or screened for investigation. Some reports were poorly investigated or left incomplete for long periods of time, in some cases, for years. Others were never investigated.
» Child welfare workers were not consistently prepared to prevent or respond to sexual abuse of state wards. Factors included high levels of worker turnover, high workloads, lack of training and workers’ lack of comfort in dealing with the topic.
» Out-of-home placements, both foster homes and residential care facilities, were not properly reporting sexual abuse in some cases and were not equipped to prevent it. Oversight and standards for both types of placements need improvement.
The report made 18 recommendations for HHS and seven for the broader child welfare system.
“Preventing and responding to sexual abuse of children is not, and cannot be, the responsibility of HHS alone,” Rogers said. “It is a community problem, which will need solutions and action from many in our communities.”
For HHS, the report recommended improving the process of deciding which hotline calls to investigate, beefing up the state’s ability to investigate problems at state-licensed youth residential facilities and enhancing training for child welfare staff.
For the broader system, it recommended fostering a culture of zero tolerance for child sexual abuse, improving the recruitment of foster families and ensuring that law enforcement shares child abuse reports with HHS.
State child welfare officials accepted 14 recommendations for HHS, including three with modifications. The department rejected the recommendation to beef up licensing staff, saying the existing staff have met all requirements for inspecting, licensing and investigating problems at youth residential facilities.
The report summarizes each of the 50 substantiated cases, as well as seven cases in which the sexual abuse allegations were listed as unfounded or were never investigated.
Among the 50 cases were 27 children who were in foster homes, state-licensed residential homes or state-run facilities. The 23 other children were former state wards who were sexually abused in the adoptive or guardianship homes where the state had placed them.
Typical was the case of an 11-year-old girl who became a state ward along with her two brothers because of their parents’ substance abuse. The children remained at home, with their grandparents as caregivers.
About a year later, the girl’s mother was arrested and the girl disclosed that she did not want to stay in the home because her grandfather had been touching her inappropriately.
The girl said she had told her mother, who did not report the abuse and just told the girl to stay away from her grandfather.
The grandfather has been sentenced to two years in prison after being convicted of attempted third-degree sexual assault of a child and child abuse.
Rogers said the impact of child sexual abuse can be lifelong. Survivors are more likely to develop physical and mental health problems, face academic difficulties, engage in risky behaviors and earn less over their lives.
National estimates show that one in 10 children will be subject to sexual abuse before the age of 18, either by an adult or another youth.
In 90 percent of those cases, the abuser will be someone the child knows and trusts.
In Nebraska, there were 1,284 children who experienced substantiated sexual abuse between 2013 and 2016. Child sexual abuse can include child rape and molestation; sexual touching; coercing or persuading a child to participate in sex acts; and exposing a child to pornography, voyeurism and sexual communications by phone or via the Internet.
The Nebraska Legislature created the Inspector General’s Office to provide independent oversight of child welfare and the juvenile probation system.