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.