Report Highlights Race Disproportionality in Nebraska’s Foster Care System

Note: This article was updated on June 19.

Black and Native American children are vastly overrepresented in Nebraska’s foster care system, according to a report issued this month by the state’s Foster Care Review Office (FCRO).

Child welfare officials at the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) suggested that the disparities were traceable to economics.

“Disproportionate numbers have affected the child welfare system nationwide. The reasons vary, but in many cases, socioeconomic factors play a part,” said DHHS Director Matthew Wallen. “Nebraska DHHS is working hard to ensure that families who are struggling with poverty issues (as opposed to neglect issues) are receiving the resources they need to keep them together.”

According to the report, 14.9 percent of children in Nebraska foster care are African-American although only 6.2 percent of the state’s child population is African-American. For children in the foster care system for more than two years, the percentage of African American children in care jumps to 24.1 percent.

Native American children are only 2.3 percent of the overall population of Nebraska’s children while they make up 6.3 percent of the foster care population. The percentage jumps even higher when comparing the percentage of black and American Indian children placed at residential treatment centers and dually involved in the juvenile justice system.

The FCRO report did not note a disproportionate foster care involvement among Latino children.

Wallen said that DHHS is working to address the issues that lead to disproportionate numbers in the child welfare system.

“One strategy recently implemented includes referring families to community response teams and assisting with applications for economic assistance, Medicaid and Social Security,” Wallen said. “The department also continued contracts with the four federally recognized tribes to provide protection and safety services on tribal lands. We worked together to identify appropriate compensation in the most recent contracts to ensure the needs of Native American Nebraska children are met.”

The report calls for a convening of both child welfare and juvenile justice stakeholder representatives to come up with solutions for the disproportionality by September 1. Wallen said his agency will work collaboratively with the FCRO and other stakeholders to address the issue.

Nebraska Appleseed Child Welfare Program Associate Becca Brune said the disproportionality is not a new finding in the state, but there are several factors to consider when determining the causes and implications.

“The disparity is about the intersection with a number of issues and not just economics,” Brune said, in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change. “Voices for Children released a data report that shows the disproportionality that exists throughout the child welfare system and how at each ‘decision point’ this overrepresentation grows. Each time a decision is made – to remove a child, where to place them, what services a family is offered – could allow for families of color to be treated differently by these systems.”

Misty Frazier, executive director of the Santee Sioux Nation, said one source of disparity is “the amount of racial profiling and lack of services that is received by the Native American population.”

“The entire child welfare system is underfunded, however tribal [child and family services] departments have been grossly underfunded,” said Frazier, in an email to The Chronicle.  “There is a revolving door of historical trauma that creates more trauma and more trauma for Native children and families, which ends up with our children being involved in these systems.”

Frazier said the Nebraska Indian Child Welfare Coalition will soon host a town hall meeting on the report and disproportionality issues.

Nebraska Appleseed, a nonprofit that advocates for justice and opportunity for all Nebraskans, worked with Nebraska State Senator Sara Howard (D) to introduce a bill in late March that would create an interim study to examine the disproportionality in the state’s foster care and juvenile justice systems. The study will collect input from families of color impacted by the child welfare system.

“Other areas of the study include further assessing where the gaps in data may exist, what specific policies or practices may be contributing to the issue, and what best practices have been identified by other states,” Brune said.

The hearing date for that bill is September 28.

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Kim Phagan-Hansel
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