LINCOLN — A 13-year-old foster child placed in the home of an ex-convict in Omaha who goes on to rape and impregnate the girl.

A female mental health practitioner charged with felony sexual abuse of a young male resident of the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center at Kearney.

Both represent allegations of sexual crimes against children who were in the state’s care.

The Inspector General of Nebraska Child Welfare said Wednesday that her office has identified 36 cases involving sexual abuse of state wards or children under the jurisdiction of the juvenile probation system. The incidents span roughly three years.

In response, Inspector General Julie Rogers has opened an investigation to identify and address potential flaws in the child welfare system that may have allowed such abuse to occur.

“How can we improve the system in Nebraska so our kids who are abused and neglected and vulnerable and have gone through trauma already are not subjected to more abuse or exploitation?” she said.

Gov. Pete Ricketts considers the well-being of children in the state’s care of “paramount importance,” said Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesman. The Department of Health and Human Services, which falls under the governor’s authority, thoroughly reviews reports of abuse to improve protections for state wards, Gage added.

The administration welcomes the “additional review and recommendations on how we can continue to improve Nebraska’s child welfare system,” Gage said.

The 36 sexually abused children are primarily state wards or former state wards removed from their homes because they were abused or neglected, Rogers said. Their subsequent sexual abuse occurred in foster homes, adoptive homes or in state-licensed residential care facilities.

Some of the abused children were on juvenile probation, which provides intensive services to children who may not be state wards, Rogers said. The probation system is run by the Administrative Office of the Courts.

All of the sexual assault allegations were reported and investigated by law enforcement authorities, Rogers said. The abuse ranged from molestation to forced sexual penetration. Some of the cases have resulted in convictions, others are pending in court and others were deemed credible by HHS investigators.

“These are not just baseless claims,” Rogers said.

It’s not her intent to reinvestigate the cases, but to conduct a thorough review of the system and identify patterns so that elected officials and department leaders can take appropriate action.

During the course of her review, Rogers said she expects to learn of more allegations of sexual abuse. But as of now, she’s not recommending any immediate changes.

Her intent is to complete the investigation and make public recommendations by September, she said.

In the case of the ex-convict in Omaha, HHS policy allows felons to be foster parents, as long as their felonies don’t involve murder, child abuse or sex offenses. He was sentenced to 100 to 160 years in prison for two counts of first-degree sexual assault of a child.

In the Kearney case, the mental health care worker has resigned her position but pleaded not guilty to the felony charge. Her case is awaiting trial in Buffalo County District Court.

The announcement was sobering for state lawmakers who’ve spent years working on legislative fixes so that children in the state’s care can thrive and succeed. One case of abuse is too many, let alone 36, they said.

“I think it’s horrifying,” said Sen. Tanya Cook, an outgoing lawmaker from Omaha who spent part of her eight years on the Health and Human Services Committee. “We, as the official ‘parent’ of these children, owe it to them to investigate fully. We’re in charge of protecting them.”

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, one of the lawmakers who created the Inspector General’s Office in 2012, said he was disappointed that abuse has occurred. But he also was thankful that oversight was in place to detect the potential failures before they grew even worse.

“For me this is alarming,” Krist said. “We need to collectively look at these issues and see where the problems are and stop them.”

Health and Human Services issued a written response, saying it provided the critical incident reports that will form the basis of the inspector general’s investigation. In the meantime, the department is at work on a plan to reduce the number of out-of-home placements, a long-term goal that generally is seen as in the best interest of the children.

“We look forward to continue working with the (inspector general) and welcome the recommendations from the report,” said Russ Reno, a spokesman for the department.

Dave Newell is CEO of Nebraska Families Collaborative, a private nonprofit organization that contracts with the state to provide child welfare services in Douglas and Sarpy Counties. His staff reports all cases of abuse, including sexual assault, as soon as they learn about them, but he did not know if any of the 36 cases originated from one of his organization’s reports.

“As with any situation where a child is in danger of being harmed, relevant information sharing between agencies allows for greater ability to predict and monitor for risk of harm to children,” he said.

The Nebraska Legislature created the Inspector General’s Office to provide independent oversight of child welfare, which includes HHS and the juvenile probation system administered by the courts.

Those with concerns about the safety of a child should immediately call the state’s child abuse hotline at 800-652-1999. People who want to provide information to the inspector general can email oig@leg.ne.gov or call 855-460-6784.

joe.duggan@owh.com, 402-473-9587

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