LINCOLN — Nebraska's new inspector general of child welfare is investigating an incident in which an angry sheriff's deputy cited a state caseworker for child abuse.
Inspector General Julie Rogers said Wednesday that she opened the investigation after getting various reports about the case.
She said she will check into allegations of misconduct by the caseworker, as well as look at whether the situation holds broader lessons about Nebraska's child welfare system.
“Child welfare system improvement will be a focus,” Rogers said.
Michael Himburg, the Stanton County deputy, described the Feb. 3 case in a lengthy email.
Himburg said he wanted to let people know about “the lack of common sense, lack of professionalism and illegal and criminal actions” by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
In his email, Himburg alleged that the HHS case worker had placed a 16-year-old girl back home with a father who he said was drunk and threatening her.
Himburg said the caseworker returned the girl barely two hours after he had removed her.
Within half an hour of the girl's return, Himburg was dispatched back to the house because of an altercation between the girl and her father.
He said he removed the child again and told the caseworker she was “under arrest for child abuse and neglect.”
In his email, he called the caseworker's action a “disgrace.”
But Russ Reno, an HHS spokesman, said the agency stands behind the caseworker “100 percent.”
“We feel she acted within the policies and procedures of HHS and was acting in the best interests of the child,” he said.
The agency's goal is to keep families together if possible, Reno said. Nebraska ranks among the top two or three states for removing children from their families and changing that ranking is a priority for the agency.
In this case, he said, the HHS worker talked with the father and the daughter before returning the girl.
Both agreed she could spend the night at home, then meet with her probation officer the following morning, which was a Monday.
“Given the discussion, the caseworker believed she would be safe,” Reno said.
But an argument broke out again when the caseworker and girl arrived at the family home on the east edge of Norfolk. Reno said the caseworker was working to get the girl removed again when Himburg came back.
“She had options lined up in the event things didn't work out,” Reno said.
While the girl has been on probation since November, the family was not involved with HHS, he said.
According to court records, the girl was placed on probation after repeated fights with her father led to multiple charges of disturbing the peace.
She was placed in detention after two of the fights and was accused in January of violating her probation.
The probation officer recommended dismissing the violation as long as the family participated in a program aimed at helping children with severe emotional, behavioral and mental problems.
The girl's father and stepmother also have faced criminal charges in relation to family fights. Both are due in court Friday on charges of domestic violence against each other.
Stanton County Sheriff Michael Unger said he supported Himburg's initial response to the situation, given that law enforcement has been called to the house 15 times in the last six months.
According to Himburg, the initial call on Feb. 3 came from the girl, who said her father and stepmother were on their way home from a bar and were angry that she had told her grandmother about the family's problems.
Himburg and another deputy pulled over the stepmother, and she was arrested for driving under the influence. The father told Himburg he planned to kick his daughter out of the house after he got home.
Unger said his deputy's first call was to the girl's probation officer, who said her behavior that night did not warrant detention. Unger said he then told Himburg to contact HHS and have the girl taken into protective custody.
Like Himburg, the sheriff faults HHS for not keeping the girl the first time she was removed.
Unger said he has never experienced a case, in his 30-plus years of law enforcement, where a child was not held for at least a day or two after being removed.
“I think HHS dropped the ball,” he said.
But he also said Himburg went too far in issuing a citation to the caseworker. Himburg reported to the sheriff while still at the home what he had done. Unger told Himburg to take the citation back and instead file a report with the county attorney for possible prosecution, which Himburg did.
“There's no need to issue a ticket to a fellow government worker,” Unger said. “He didn't ask me. He just did it.”
Stanton County Attorney Bert Lammli did not return a message asking whether he intends to file charges against the case worker. He had not filed any as of Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Unger said he has put Himburg on paid administrative leave pending an investigation of numerous policy violations. The alleged violations include a “very serious breach of confidentiality” in sending the email to several state and national news outlets, Unger said.
At HHS, spokesman Reno said agency officials have reviewed the incident and concluded the caseworker's actions were appropriate.
He said the agency plans no additional action but will cooperate with the inspector general's investigation.
State lawmakers created the inspector general's office last year to increase accountability and oversight of the child welfare system.
The office can investigate allegations of wrongdoing by HHS workers, contractors and foster parents. It has no jurisdiction over law enforcement.
Both Reno and Unger agreed that HHS and Stanton County law enforcement have been able to work together in the past without problem.
“We've never had any kind of incident like this,” Unger said.
Editor's Note, Feb. 14, 11 a.m.: This story initially identified the professional as a social worker, instead of a caseworker.
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