LINCOLN — Foster care numbers in Nebraska have climbed for a second straight year, according to a new state report.

The Foster Care Review Office’s latest annual report shows that, between July 2016 and this June, 5.1 percent more children across the state wound up in out-of-home care through the child welfare system.

Some areas of the state saw much steeper increases — 22.5 percent in the west, 12 percent in the southeast — while numbers held steady in the Omaha area.

“It is striking, and it is concerning,” said Julie Rogers, Nebraska’s inspector general of child welfare.

She called for interested parties to get together and look for ways to reverse the trend, noting that it could result from more children entering foster care or children staying longer in foster care.

Officials with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services attributed the increase to parental substance abuse.

HHS spokesman Russ Reno said child welfare officials are responding by reviewing the array of services available to children and families and working with state behavioral health officials to address substance abuse.

But Katherine Bass, research director for the review office, which is an independent state agency, said she doesn’t have answers about why more children are in foster care or why trends differ across the state.

“That’s hard to pinpoint,” she said. “I don’t think we’re in a place where we can say what caused it.”

The recent growth followed a year in which Nebraska children in out-of-home care, including foster homes, group homes and other settings, increased by 7 percent.

Foster care numbers had been declining previously, as child welfare officials worked to keep abused and neglected children safe without the trauma of being taken from their homes.

Nebraska historically has removed children at one of the highest rates in the nation.

In June this year, the child welfare system had 4,123 children in foster care on any given day.

For the same month, the juvenile probation system had another 1,014 youths in out-of-home care. The numbers of foster youths in the probation system decreased 0.9 percent over the year.

In total, the report showed that 7,923 Nebraska children spent at least a day in out-of-home care through the child welfare and probation systems during the year that ended June 30.

Bass said 63 percent of foster children whose child welfare cases were reviewed by the office in the last year had been placed in state care because of parental neglect.

She said neglect often reflects other problems, such as parental mental health issues, substance abuse, mental deficits, domestic violence or poverty.

Substance abuse was the next most common reason for removal — showing up in 56 percent of the reviewed children’s cases — and methamphetamine was the most commonly abused drug.

There may be multiple reasons for removal.

As in previous years, review office officials raised concerns that 16 percent of foster children in the child welfare system have been through four or more out-of-home placements.

Among them are 6.9 percent of the children age 5 and younger. Nearly 34 percent of teenagers have been through that many placements.

National research shows that children who experience four or more changes in placement are likely to suffer permanent damage from the instability and trauma of broken attachments.

Bass raised concerns that 40 percent of children who changed foster homes also changed schools, which adds to their instability.

Caseworker turnover produces another source of instability. Among the cases reviewed, 16.8 percent of children had five or more caseworkers while in their latest episode of out-of-home care. An additional 36.8 percent had three or four caseworkers.

Among other findings:

» African-American and Native American children are overrepresented among out-of-home youths in the child welfare and probation systems. African-Americans account for 6.2 percent of the state’s child population but 15.4 percent of foster children in child welfare, while Native Americans account for 2.3 percent of children in the state but 5.5 percent of foster children.

» A significant proportion of foster children in the child welfare system (42 percent of those reviewed) have been professionally diagnosed with mental health- or trauma-related conditions. The report said finding needed services can be difficult, especially in rural parts of Nebraska. Among probation youths in out-of-home care, the proportion was even higher (81 percent of those reviewed).

» Almost all (96 percent) of cases reviewed had court-ordered plans with specific services and tasks identified, which Bass said was a big improvement over the 87 percent last year.

» In about 600 cases, children could have quickly left foster care by returning to their parents or having an adoption or guardianship finalized if the child welfare system had been meeting their needs. In the other 83 percent of cases, the reviews concluded that out-of-home care was still needed.

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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