LINCOLN — Toddlers and teenagers are equally likely to become foster children in Nebraska, but it’s mostly troubled teens who enter the system repeatedly.
Linda Cox, interim director of the Foster Care Review Office, told state lawmakers Thursday there are distinct differences between children who are removed from home for the first time and those who are removed additional times.
She described some of the differences at an interim study hearing looking at why the Nebraska rate of children in foster care is among the nation’s worst.
Nebraska had the nation’s second-highest rate of removing children from home in 2009, according to federal data. The rate was more than double the national average of 3.4 removals per 1,000 children.
The Health and Human Services and Judiciary Committees plan a second hearing on the matter Oct. 5.
Cox said data collected by the review office (formerly the Nebraska Foster Care Review Board) sheds light on some questions about how children wind up in foster care and what happens to them after they are removed from their homes.
She noted that the office has information only about children in out-of-home care, not those living at home under supervision of the child welfare system.
The data show there were 4,035 Nebraska children in out-of-home care as of Monday.
About one-third, or 1,521 children, had been removed from their homes one or more times previously.
Among the key differences between the two groups:
» Almost as many children were birth to age 5 as were ages 13 to 18 on first removal. For children removed multiple times, 76 percent were ages 13 to 18.
» Girls outnumber boys on first removals, while the reverse is true for children with multiple removals.
» Children on first removals are more likely to be placed close to home than those with multiple removals.
Cox said the placement differences may be because youngsters with prior removals are more likely to have mental health, behavioral or delinquency problems and require care not available in all parts of the state.
Those children also may be more likely to be placed at one of the two Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers, which are in Kearney and Geneva.
Cox told lawmakers the most common reason for Nebraska children to be removed from their parents is neglect. Third on the list is unsafe or substandard housing.
She said neglect and housing problems both may stem from parents who are dealing with mental health, substance abuse, domestic violence and low functioning levels.
Housing problems also can be related to the economy, the cost of living and parents’ inability to get and hold a job.
Other top reasons for removal include parental drug use, which ranked No. 2, as well as alcohol abuse, domestic violence, physical abuse and a child’s behavioral, mental health and substance abuse problems.
Noting the prevalence of removals for neglect and bad housing, Becky Gould, executive director of the Nebraska Appleseed Center, told lawmakers that effectively addressing poverty is one key to keeping children out of foster care.
“We believe a lot of work needs to be done to strengthen public assistance programs to help more families who are struggling to meet their children’s basic needs,” she said.
Gould suggested steps such as increasing welfare rates, which have not been changed since the 1980s. Welfare pays $293 per month for a single parent with a school-age child, she said, compared with the basic foster care rate of $359 per month.
She also suggested:
» Expanding eligibility for welfare and child care subsidies.
» Making it easier for parents to get treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems while on welfare.
» Signing up more families who qualify for food stamps.
» Increasing funding for children’s behavioral health care.
Contact the writer: