'She didn't look like this when she went into foster care'

An Omaha girl was put in foster care 2½ years ago when a state worker questioned whether the girl was safe with her mother.

Now the mother is questioning how safe her daughter is in the state's care.

The girl was a passenger in a car driven by a drunken worker who was arrested in a highly publicized case. More recently the 9-year-old was mauled by her foster parents' dog.

"It's the second time they have almost killed her," her mother said.

Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services staff described the incidents as a rare but unfortunate coincidence.

As of January, about one-half of 1 percent of foster children had suffered maltreatment in state custody, said Todd Landry, children and family services director.

"We continuously strive to keep children safe, particularly while they're in foster care," he said in a written statement. "While issues such as these are very infrequent in foster care, we take each one very seriously. We're saddened that this child has experienced this type of trauma."

The executive director of the Nebraska Foster Care Review Board, Carol Stitt, said she knows of a few other foster children who have been mauled by dogs.

In 2007, according to the most recent data available, her agency concluded that 1.4 percent of foster children - or 77 - were in unsafe placements, which can include a lack of supervision, assaults by other children, neglect and other situations.

"All children and youth placed in the care of the state are entitled to be well cared for and to be safe," the review board's 2007 annual report said. "It is only rational to expect that the conditions in foster homes and group homes would be much better than those endured by the child prior to coming into care."

The child in this case was 6 when she was put in state care after her mother was jailed on a drunken-driving charge.

Their house was littered with dirty clothes and unwashed dishes, according to court records. Friends, family, school and day care employees told an HHS worker that they worried about the girl, who often had an unpleasant odor.

The mother, then 35, struggled with eating disorders and anxiety. She ended up in prison for her sixth drunken-driving conviction while her daughter lived in foster homes.

Then, in February 2008, drivers called police to report a sedan swerving on Interstate 80 west of the Gretna exit.

Driver Denise M. Thomson, working for an Omaha company that transported foster children for HHS, was taking the girl to visit her mother, court records say.

Police determined Thomson's blood-alcohol level was .40 - five times the legal limit - and found an open vodka container on the front seat.

The girl, then 8, was found crying in the back seat.

The driver was fired and pleaded guilty to attempted negligent child abuse and driving under the influence.

The girl was living with foster parents in Omaha, HHS spokeswoman Jeanne Atkinson said.

Almost a year later - on New Year's Day 2009 - the girl tried to nudge her foster family's black Labrador, Stitch, off her bed, said Mark Langan of the Nebraska Humane Society.

The dog bit her face, leaving gaping wounds on her cheek, and tore a 2-inch strip from her upper arm, exposing tissue, according to medical records. Her mother said she needed 42 stitches.

The foster parents released the dog to Humane Society staff, who euthanized him, Langan said.

HHS staff investigated the incident, and while the girl was removed, the couple remain licensed and have one foster child.

The couple, who declined to comment, have been foster parents for seven years and adopted five children, Atkinson said.

The appropriateness of a pet in a foster home is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

About two weeks after the attack, HHS staff placed the girl with her mother's sister, who now serves as her foster parent, Atkinson said.

The mother, released from prison a year ago, was pleased with that decision but worried because her sister also has a black Lab.

The mother's attorney, Carol Pinard-Cronin, filed a motion to return the girl home, saying she has "suffered significant injury, trauma and psychological upheaval in the department's custody."

The motion says the mother has complied with court orders to remain sober, pass drug tests, attend therapy and have a job.

However, a prosecutor filed a motion to terminate the mother's rights, saying her compliance has been inconsistent. Hearing dates have been set in April and June.

The mother's lawyer and the guardian ad litem, assigned to represent the child's best interests, declined to comment because of the pending case.

Taxpayers have footed the bill for the girl's injuries through the Medicaid program, Atkinson said. The mother said her daughter may need plastic surgery.

"She didn't look like this when she went into foster care," her mother said. "She is scarred for life, and it is not fair."

• Contact the writer: 444-1208, karyn.spencer@owh.com


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