“Preventing and responding to sexual abuse of children is not, and cannot be, the responsibility of HHS alone,” Julie Rogers said. “It is a community problem, which will need solutions and action from many in our communities.”
It’s imperative that Nebraska step up its efforts to keep children in state custody safe from sexual abuse.
During 2013-16, at least 50 Nebraska children suffered sexual abuse while in the state’s care or after being placed in an adoptive or guardianship home, the state inspector for child welfare reports.
The actual number is likely higher, Julie Rogers reported, since some cases to the state child abuse hotline were screened out incorrectly or not investigated properly. In addition, some cases go unreported.
Twenty-seven of the cases involved children in foster homes, state-licensed residential homes or state-run facilities. The remaining 23 cases involved former state wards who were sexually abused in the adoptive or guardianship homes where the state had placed them.
Rogers has made 18 recommendations for HHS and seven for the broader child welfare system. HHS met with Rogers regularly during preparation of the report, sharing information and input.
The department has accepted most of Rogers’ recommendations and points to steps it has taken or will take, including improved procedures for the state hotline and increased oversight of foster homes and residential facilities, plus strengthened reporting and investigations.
It will be up to members of the Legislature to decide this session whether to appoint a special oversight committee to monitor the child welfare system, as proposed by State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln.
Among Rogers’ sensible recommendations for the broader system: improving the recruitment of foster families and ensuring that law enforcement agencies share child abuse reports with HHS.
“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.”
Her report cited a range of factors that contributed to the sexual abuse problem: Some caregivers and child welfare professionals were too quick to dismiss allegations. Some allegations were not appropriately reported or screened for investigation.
In addition, Rogers wrote, heavy workloads and high turnover complicate child welfare workers’ ability to handle cases properly. Foster homes and residential care facilities in some cases were not properly reporting sexual abuse and were not equipped to prevent it.
Keeping vulnerable children safe is a fundamental obligation for society. The entire array of relevant institutions — HHS, licensed residential homes, the juvenile justice system and law enforcement — should work in coordinated fashion to strengthen how Nebraska carries out that all-important duty.