LINCOLN — Child welfare officials have rejected recommendations for change based on a probe into the death or serious injury of four Nebraska babies, according a report released Tuesday.

Inspector General of Nebraska Child Welfare Julie Rogers released the report, which included her findings from investigating the four cases. All four involved infants whose siblings already had been removed from their homes for abuse or neglect.

Rogers made five recommendations based on her investigations. They include adopting a policy for assessing the safety of a baby born to parents involved with the child welfare system and requiring consultation with a supervisor when a new baby is born to parents who are no longer involved with the system because they have given up their rights to a sibling.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services rejected all five recommendations related to those cases but accepted two others in the report.

In a letter, CEO Dannette Smith said the department already has a protocol for reassessing families involved in the child welfare system when circumstances change, such as through the birth of a child. She said HHS is studying how other states handle similar cases before making any changes to the protocol.

“(We) will not make changes to protocols that are not thoroughly researched and consistent with industry best practice,” she said.

Smith said Tuesday that HHS takes all recommendations seriously and has completed, is making progress or needs to take no further action on about 89% of the inspector general’s recommendations over the years.

“Our decision to accept or reject specific recommendations is made around the overall strategies we are pursuing to move the Division of Children and Family Services forward,” she said. “The safety and well-being of all children in Nebraska is a priority for the department, and it continues to look at strategies to strengthen the child welfare system.”

Rogers expressed disappointment with the department’s response, saying it did not address the specific problems raised by the four cases.

“Caseworkers and supervisors need more than these generalities when faced with complex cases such as these,” she said. “It’s my hope that HHS will propose more specific solutions to solve the gaps in our child welfare system as a result of these tragic events.”

But Rogers praised HHS for making progress on previous recommendations. She noted work on improving home studies, regulating foster care providers and training of agency staff and foster and adoptive parents on preventing sexual abuse and exploitation. She pointed particularly to improvements in caseload sizes for child welfare workers, though she said the state has not met the standards set by law.

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According to the annual report, the four infant cases occurred between 2014 and 2018, but investigations wrapped up this year. Each involved a baby left in the care and custody of a parent or parents who had previously abused or neglected a young child.

An example was the case of a 1-month-old girl, called “Gracie S.” in the report. She was brought to the hospital after being found limp and unresponsive in her crib. Doctors found multiple fractures on both sides of her skull and bleeding in her skull and brain. She died after being taken off life support.

According to the report, Gracie’s mother, called “Heather,” had been imprisoned previously after being convicted of felony child abuse of her then-6-week-old son. Heather told investigators at the time that she had a hard time coping with the stress of caring for a newborn. The son remained in a placement away from his mother when Gracie was born.

After Gracie’s birth, child welfare workers assessed her situation. They concluded she was safe in her mother’s care but said she was at high risk. The workers recommended ongoing services; however, there was no follow-up or monitoring done.

As in that case, Rogers found that all four infants were left with parents who got no additional services, that the parents’ progress in the siblings’ cases was mischaracterized and that caseworkers and supervisors got little help coping with the trauma they encountered on their jobs.

The report detailed a separate investigation into the case of a 14-month-old who died in the care of a foster mother. The child had been placed with that foster family, despite previous recommendations not to place children under the age of 2 with that family. HHS accepted the two changes that Rogers recommended in that case.

According to the annual report, the Inspector General’s Office reviewed 590 cases between July 1, 2018, and June 30 this year. The total includes 243 from HHS, 71 from juvenile probation and three from other sources.

The report said Rogers has been forced to abandon an investigation into three suicides and 15 suicide attempts by youths under the supervision of juvenile probation.

She launched the investigation in April 2018 to look for systemic issues involved with the incidents and see if any recommendations for improvements could be made. But as of June 2018, she said, the Administrative Office of Probation blocked her from interviewing probation staff and denied her requests for data, making the investigation impossible.

State Court Administrator Corey Steel said the Nebraska Supreme Court required that staff have attorneys present during interviews and that all questions had to be submitted in advance. He said the court thought Rogers was overstepping her mandate.

The inspector general and probation officials have clashed ever since probation took over responsibility for juvenile offenders from HHS.

Probation officials have not accepted Rogers’ past recommendations, citing “separation of powers and judicial independence.” Probation is part of the judicial branch of state government. The inspector general’s position is within the legislative branch.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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