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State Sen. Bob Krist blasted Gov. Pete Ricketts on Thursday as personally responsible for the sexual abuse and deaths of dozens of children in the Nebraska child welfare program.

Ricketts and his administration "have buried their heads in the sand and done nothing to fix the problems," ignoring the warnings outlined in investigations as well as calls from lawmakers to act, Krist said.

"How many more Nebraska kids need to die?" Krist said at a morning news conference in the Capitol Rotunda. "How many more of our kids need to be sexually abused, sometimes while in custody?

"How much more taxpayer dollars must be misspent before Pete Ricketts thinks it's necessary to take steps to correct child welfare?" he added.

The Nebraska child welfare system has long been out of compliance with state laws regarding the staffing needed to meet minimum caseload standards for child welfare cases, including throughout Ricketts' first term as governor, Krist said.

In January, Matt Wallen, the director of the Division of Children and Family Services, told the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee the state failed to meet the standards of the Child Welfare League of America and requirements of state law set in 2012.

Wallen also told the committee: "I don't know too many other jurisdictions that are meeting the Child Welfare League of American standards, so it's not unheard of."

Krist said Ricketts also failed to act after 22 children were seriously injured or died while in the state welfare program in 2015 and 2016.

But Matt Litt, communications director for DHHS, said the Division of Children and Family Services is actively working to prevent harm to any children in the state's child welfare system.

The number of deaths of children in the state's care has dropped to zero in 2018, down from five in 2016 and one in 2017, as well as down from three deaths as the result of maltreatment in 2016.

"One death is too many and our (Children and Family Services) team will continue our work to minimize harm to children," Litt said.

Krist also said the Republican governor again looked the other way when 50 Nebraska children — including some as young as 4 years old — were sexually abused at the hands of a guardian, according to report by the system's inspector general.

Following the release of the report showing substantiated cases of sexual abuse of children in October 2017, Ricketts ignored calls from lawmakers for more oversight, Krist said, and later opposed a bill that would have formed a special oversight committee.

In a statement in December, DHHS said an additional oversight committee would have been duplicative, adding that the oversight function fell under the purview of the Legislature's HHS Committee.

Courtney Phillips, the CEO of DHHS, also ordered the Division of Children and Family Services to issue an annual report identifying reported instances of sexual abuse.

Finally, Krist said blame for $26 million in overpayments, unreasonable expenditures and other errors within the child welfare system belonged at the feet of Ricketts, referring to a 98-page report by the state auditor published last week.

Litt said the figure reported in the audit "characterizes projected errors in spending and not actual misspent funds," and does not address the state's efforts to address spending issues with the private child welfare provider before the audit.

He also said it "inappropriately critiques" Ricketts and that DHHS was working to effectively manage its resources while serving the children and families of the state.

Asked what should have been done differently, Krist said he believes the governor should have more closely followed the recommendations outlined in a 400-page report compiled between 2009 and 2011 by the HHS Committee and its chairwoman, then-Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln.

Instead, the governor's "approach to cut, cut, cut, cut" state spending, according to Krist, had moved the state backward and threatened to erase the progress made since the reform strategies were implemented.

Ricketts and the Legislature approved $35 million in new funding this year, according to a governor's spokesman.

If elected, Krist said he would "not sit idly by while Nebraska children are being abused and dying."

"You have to apply the oversight, you have to insist the prioritization of funding is there," Krist said. "It has to be a priority."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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