Today, Nedhal Al-kazahy is an advocate for better foster care in Nebraska. She spent several years of her life in Nebraska's foster care system. Photo: Jolie Peal

Nedhal Al-kazahy, now 21, grew up bouncing in between 30 different foster homes in Nebraska. In most of these homes, she said she faced discrimination against her Islamic faith.

“Some forced me to eat pork. A lot of them forced me to go to [a Catholic] Church, their church, and stand and pray with them. Many made me pray with them before dinner,” Al-kazahy said. “They had no respect for my culture at all.”

At the age of 5, Al-kazahy was taken into foster care along with her five siblings. At first, they were placed into CEDARS Home for Children in Lincoln, NE, but then they were split up three-and-three and placed into separate foster homes. She and her siblings were completely split up after that first placement, and Al-kazahy was by herself. 

“My mom’s bipolar and she’s completely deaf,” Al-kazahy said. “She can’t hear or speak, so it was just, you know, hard for her, and being a young mother and coming to another country did not make it easy. She kind of took that anger out on my dad. Someone called and we were taken away.” 

According to the June quarterly report of the Nebraska Foster Care Review Office, 9.7 percent of children who have been in foster care for at least five years have been through 30 or more foster homes, most lasting less than three months in each home. 

“That often leads to more trauma and then higher needs,” Katherine Bass, research director for the Nebraska Foster Care Review Office, said. “It becomes a sort of cyclical thing that’s unfortunate and we never want to see.”

Dr Bass 300x169 - Nebraska woman describes injustices of aging through state's foster care system
Katherine Bass, research director for the Nebraska Foster Care Review Office, said shuttling foster children between different foster homes often leads to more trauma for the children. Photo: Jolie Peal

For Al-kazahy, the trauma of changing homes often was heightened by the treatment she received. 

“Usually I would come home to my stuff packed,” she said. “I remember one time, I came home and my stuff was in the transportation van. I came home from school and they told me that I had to go get in the van and leave. Like, they packed my stuff for me.”

Bass said the Review Office conducted their research with data from the Department of Health and Human Services as well as the Administrative Office of Probation. The review office reviews the cases of foster children every six months, using documents in their particular case and talking with the guardian of the child to put together a case file.

While reviewing the case of each child, Bass said the Review Office tries to find the best placement for the child, taking into consideration whether or not the state is trying to reunify the child with their biological family.

“The first goal is always to reunify the [child with their] parents,” Bass said. “But if the safety concerns are as such that that’s not possible, then we look at adoption as a permanency guardianship and then, in some cases, independent living, which really is children age out of the foster care system.” 

However, Al-kazahy said she was not placed with her father or other family, even though they were qualified. 

“My grandmother and my aunts and uncles moved down from Michigan,” she said. “They moved to Nebraska, got certified, had everything checked out and [were] still rejected.” 

Al-kazahy said they were never given a reason as to why they were rejected. While Bass could not offer a reason, she said the Foster Care Review Office has been calling for kin who could take in a foster child to have access to the special training needed to ensure the child is safe, happy and in the most ideal placement. 

“One of the things that we have consistently recommended is that there needs to be a training process and a licensing process for those relative kin,” Bass said.  “Child welfare is a really complicated system.”

Becca Brune, senior program coordinator for the child welfare program for Nebraska Appleseed, said the high turnover rate of caseworkers contributes to issues in the foster system.

“I think they did take some steps to try and fix it,” Brune said. “A number of years ago they put caseload standards into state statutes, so it said it is state law that the department must meet these numbers. Since that’s been in statute, they have still not met it. I think that was an attempt, but challenges have really continued.”

Brune said giving more money to hire caseworkers could help. She said DHHS has also tried different tactics to keep caseworkers and hire more, but the numbers are still not meeting the law.

Al-kazahy said she had many caseworkers during her time in foster care, and most of them disrespected her family’s home. 

“[In] the Muslim culture you’re supposed to take your shoes off before you enter someone’s home, or at least leave them at the door and don’t step on the carpet. That’s where we eat and we pray, so we don’t want your dirt tracking in,” she said. “Most of them refused to do that in my dad’s home and my mother’s home. It’s not a hard thing to do, just take your shoes off. It’s not that big of a request.”

Outside of religion at home, Al-kazahy said she was unable to attend mosque on Sunday with her family because her visitations were on Fridays. Most of her foster homes refused to take her to the mosque as well. 

Having the ability to practice religion is part of a child’s right to normalcy, which includes activities like field trips and extracurriculars as well. Normalcy has been a growing topic of interest in Nebraska legislature. Brune said The Nebraska Strengthening Families Act gave foster parents the permission they needed to allow their foster children to participate in normal kid activities. The law passed in 2016, according to Nebraska Appleseed

This law came after Al-kazahy’s time in foster care, so she faced the challenge of not having access to normalcy. 

“I didn’t do well in school because I had to keep relearning the same thing I learned from the last school,” Al-kazahy said. “I wasn’t paying attention and then I could never learn anything new.”

Al-kazahy said she wasn’t in a place long enough to form friendships. 

“I never went out of my way to make friends because I knew that there was that time I was going to be moving again,” she said. “I don’t have too many friends from my childhood.”

Al-kazahy faced more challenges as she continued to grow in the foster care system. At the age of 14, two weeks before starting high school, her brother, Naif Al-kazahy, was murdered. 

“Foster care sucks, but losing a sibling at any age, and going through that stuff was so hard,” she said. “That’s when I went downhill. It was just me pretty much trying to breathe, but so much was coming at me that I couldn’t.”

Al-kazahy said she ran away from home six times after that. She would come back after a few hours, but one time, she didn’t. She was sent to the Geneva Youth Rehabilitation & Treatment Center for running away.

The Foster Care Review Office’s annual report showed from June 2018 to June 2019, the population of girls at Geneva increased by 29.3 percent. The overall state population of youths in YRTC increased by 4.8 percent from June 2018 to June 2019. 

Al-kazahy said Geneva is where children are sent for abusing alcohol or drugs. She was sent there for running away one time.  

“My foster mom at the time just could not handle me, kicked me out and sent me to a group home,” Al-kazahy said. “So I was a 14-year-old kid who was still grieving her brother, who started high school, who just got kicked out and sent to a group home with mean girls.”

After eight months at Geneva, Al-kazahy said she was released and returned into the system. 

She aged out of the system at 17. 

Al-kazahy was in a program that set her up in an apartment two weeks after graduating from high school.

“It was kind of scary,” she said. “I remember the first night I called my foster mom crying, begging her to come pick me up. At the same time, it honestly felt like how [my life] always was because I was always alone or independent in a way, even in those homes.”

Bass said the system always tries to put a child in a permanent home, but sometimes children do age out. According to the review office’s annual report, 6 percent of children reached 19-years-old, the age of majority in Nebraska, meaning they aged out of the system without permanency. 

Brune said Nebraska Appleseed is currently working on a lawsuit to return jurisdiction of the Omaha foster care system from a private institution to DHHS, which could also come up in the next legislative session. 

Omaha’s system is different from the rest of the state because it is currently funded by an outside source and not DHHS. Because Omaha is in the process of switching to a new institution, the difference proves to be a problem, according to the Nebraska Appleseed Release

The release said this private system violates Nebraskans’ rights to be treated the same if they are in similar situations across the state.  

Brune said another topic of interest with the foster care system is cases where kids are not seen in the courts.

“There are a lot of cases where kids are still maybe needing our services, but it’s not through the courts. They’re calling it ‘hidden foster care,’” she said. “ These kids are in their homes, or placed with someone else in these temporary agreements. It should be foster care getting them services, but because the court isn’t involved, we don’t have that oversight.” 

Four years after aging out of the system, Al-kazahy said she is working to ensure no child has to endure what she did. She is a foster care advocate, hosts race equity panels, is on the advisory board for the Nebraska Children’s Family Foundation and a council member for Project Everlast, an organization that helps foster youth that age out. 

She was also a former fellow for Nebraska Appleseed. Recently, she was recognized for her work by the Nebraska Juvenile Justice as the 2019 Spirit of Youth Award recipient. 

Al-kazahy said although foster care made her grow up faster, she was still able to feel   successful.

“Foster care is like being in a cage and watching your life go by and all your decisions being made for you and you get no say,” she said. “That’s how it felt.  It made me a stronger person, but I was a kid. There was no need for me to be a stronger person at that time. I never want a kid to feel the way I had to feel.”

This story was updated on Jan. 21 at 10:15 p.m. to correct a statement to “9.7 percent of children who have been in foster care for at least five years have been through 30 or more foster homes.”

Jolie Peal is a senior journalism and broadcasting double major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She currently works for Hail Varsity as the content and video production intern. Jolie has also worked for The Daily Nebraskan as senior culture editor, an assistant news editor and a news reporter.