CHILD WELFARE – Navigating a Fractured System
January 12th, 2012
Omaha, NE – The child welfare system in Nebraska is incredibly complex. But for the families in the system, it’s incredibly personal. In part one of our series: Child Welfare: Navigating a Fractured System, we examine why child welfare in the state has been so notoriously splintered, and how some families feel lost in it.
“Oh my gosh, Mr. Kittles are you in there?” Joan Theye’s youngest daughter Cassie dashes after Mr. Kittles, the family cat, as he sneaks behind a dresser. Theye is seated with her three daughters in a small bedroom in her Bennington home just outside of Omaha. She’s trying to get a bit of privacy. Case workers are just a few feet away… which happens anytime she wants to see her kids.
“It’s like you think you have this power…about being a mom,” Theye said. “Then when they tell you that you don’t… You’re a mom, for goodness sake’s. You have them in your stomach for 10 months. I mean, it is a full ten months. It’s not even just nine months… It’s strange how we don’t have those rights.”
The Theye family came to the attention of the state last year, because all three kids had missed weeks of school. And after going to court, the Department of Health and Human Services and KVC, a private agency contracted with the state, recommended the children be removed from the home. But instead of placing them in foster care, they placed them with their father. That’s a very different response from a few years ago, when the family first came into the system. Then, the state helped Theye maintain a protection order against the father, who’s been convicted of domestic assault. (Click here to read the full story of the Theye family)
“From a parent’s perspective, it probably does feel broken,” said Vicki Maca, an administrator with DHHS. Maca is in charge of the state’s efforts to reform the child welfare system.
Known as Families Matter, the reforms began in 2009 and included privatizing all case management to lead agencies. The goal: to reduce the number of children removed from their homes. Nebraska removes children at one of the highest rates in the nation, according to the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. But the reforms in the state have been problematic from the start.
“We basically transferred the dollars we were using to the lead agencies, and then we also upped the ante,” Maca said. “(We) said you’re going to use the same dollars we had, but you have to do better than we did.”
“The assumption was that because they were private and had more flexibility, they would be able to do that,” she said. “And I don’t think all those assumptions were good assumptions.”
State Senator Kathy Campbell, chair of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, said “We believe that we went into this initiative in Nebraska without a strategic plan, without a good fiscal analysis, and certainly without an implementation or an evaluation system built into it.”
In December, Campbell’s committee released a comprehensive report on what went wrong with reform and why it’s been troubled for so long. It showed the complexities of the system and how families and children can often get lost in it – taken out of the home unnecessarily, or placed with multiple foster families.
Campbell said managing a family’s case is too important to be outsourced to private agencies. A case manager has to guide the family through the system and represent them.
“All the research that we’ve done, and the states and communities we’ve looked at, where they have been successful, (have had) case managers who have a reasonable case load, that they can visit the children, they know the family, they can communicate to the judge what’s happening to that family,” she said. “It is pivotal.”
In Joan Theye’s situation, the family had multiple case managers… and she doesn’t feel they’ve been on her side. Campbell and Vicki Maca agree another part of the problem is when the state tried to reform child welfare, they didn’t ask the families in the system how to do it. Advocates say that may be due to the state judging parents in the system too hastily.
Charles Gilmore has four children currently in foster care. He told his story at a gathering of several parents at the offices of Nebraska Family Support Network – a nonprofit that helps families navigate the system.
“I will break my back, bend over backwards to prevent any incidents, any harm,” Gilmore said. “If I see my daughter falling, I will fall to break her fall. These are my actions, these are the things I’ll do for my children to prevent harm to them.”
Gilmore’s children were taken into custody on charges of neglect. He and his wife Latoria Cook had numerous problems. Gilmore has a criminal record, the children had developmental and behavioral problems, and Gilmore’s wife is a young mom, who has struggled to manage her children’s behaviors. She described the first time she asked the state for help with her eldest son, who has Autism.
“I said, what do I do in the situation where my son’s hanging out the window?” she said. “Cops been called to my house twice. I’m trying to do as much as I can on with own with a new baby, two operations, you know, four children all together, trying to do the best I can. I said it’s just getting to the point… I need help.”
The couple’s children have been separated and placed in multiple foster homes: two have been in eight homes, another in nine. And that’s in less than two years. Cook and Gilmore feel the state is not working with them to get them back. Gilmore says, while he believes the foster parents are doing their best, as their parent, he will always do more. (Click here to read the full story of Charles Gilmore and Latoria Cook)
“Any time a child begs you, begs you not to leave them,” Gilmore said, “begs you, can they come home with you, hanging on to your leg. My son literally grabbed my leg, would not let me go when I took him back to his foster mother’s house to take him in. He would not let me go.”
“That’s the feeling of the child knowing what he wants… knowing where he wants to be,” he said. “No matter how many miles you take them (away), they know home. They know mother, they know father.”
Fighting back tears, Gilmore added, “I’m going to keep fighting for my children.”
The Department of Health and Human Services and the private agencies working with these families could not respond with specifics about their cases. But Vicki Maca said DHHS wants to do the right thing for every child in the system.
“I am, and I know the staff with the Department of Children and Family Services are, very committed to these kids,” she said, “and wanting to make sure that they are safe, and in good, long-term places, hopefully with family.”
“And when they can’t be, that their placement out of home is as short as possible, meeting their needs and getting them home safely as quickly as we possibly can.”
“I think that’s it or I’m going to start bawling.” Back at the Theye home, telling their story too was emotional. “I feel like my whole body’s just shaking,” Theye said, as her daughter hugged her. “I love you too,” she said.
The girls tried to stay upbeat, but they clung to their mom. The eldest daughter, Leneada, 14, said she misses her home, her dog, and her mother. “Just knowing my mom’s there,” she said. “Having just this family here, just knowing that I have them. They’re important to me and nothing else matters.”
The youngest, Cassie, who’s 10 and was chasing the cat earlier, seems to be struggling the most. Her sisters say she cries herself to sleep most nights. “Because mom is the one that I love so much,” she said.
“If I’m without her, it’s just like the world is broken.”
Editorial Note: Tomorrow, we’ll continue our series, Child Welfare: Navigating a Fractured System. We’ll look at the future of reform, and how the state is re-prioritizing to get to families before they’re in crisis. We’ll also look at the inevitable player in the story: funding.