CHILD WELFARE – Navigating a Fractured System

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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.

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The Theye Family. Joan Theye sits in the middle, flanked by Yevonne, 12, on her left, Leneada, 14, on her right, and Cassie, 10, in the middle. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

“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)

Sen. Kathy Campbell says the state initiated reforms without a plan to implement them. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Legislature)

“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 and Latoria Cook pose for a quick family photo in their small, South Omaha apartment. (Photo by Robyn Wisch)

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.

5 Responses

  1. Richard Wexler says:

    Thank you KVNO for finally telling the real story of Nebraska child welfare. Both of these families have serious, real problems. But in neither case is there even an accusation that a parent beat, tortured, sexually assaulted, starved or did any of the other things to a child that come to mind when we hear the words “child abuse”

    Rather, in both cases you have impoverished overwhelmed parents who urgently needed help; in one case they even asked DHHS for that help. But instead of providing the help DHHS tore apart the families, and made the children’s problems far worse.

    There is nothing in either case that couldn’t have been fixed with interventions like Intensive Family Preservation Services. Not only is that better for the children’s well-being and less costly than foster care, it’s also safer than foster care. Study after study has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes. The rate of abuse in group homes and institutions is even worse.

    This is why Nebraska tears apart families at a rate vastly above the national average – year after year the second or third highest rate in the nation.

    And all the time, money and effort wasted tearing apart these families, while ignoring better alternatives to help them, is, in effect, stolen from finding children in real danger who really do need to be taken from their parents.

    As for cost, although the system pleads poverty, Nebraska actually spends on child welfare at a rate more than 60 percent above the national average. That’s because foster care is far more expensive than better alternatives. Nebraska also overuses the worst, and most expensive, form of care of all, group homes and institutions. So huge amounts of taxpayer money are wasted on interventions that actually do harm.

    Privatization is a sideshow. There is no evidence that privatization per se makes a system better, or worse. Yet everyone in Nebraska is obsessing over the issue. As the Titanic that is Nebraska child welfare keeps sinking, it seems that all the legislature can do is obsess over exactly how to rearrange the deck chairs.

    Finally one footnote: Though kinship care usually is a better, safer alternative than placing a child with strangers, it is *still* a form of foster care, and it is still harmful to children. That’s true even when, unlike in the Theye case, there are no questions about the relative who’s been chosen to take the children. When a child *must* be taken away, a relative almost always is the best option, but in these cases, there was no need for removal at all.

    Richard Wexler
    Executive Director
    National Coalition for Child Protection Reform
    http://www.nccpr.org

  2. Leonard Henderson says:

    American Family Rights association whole-heartedly agrees with Richard Wexler.

    We are looking forward to MORE in this series, which we regard as Investigative Reporting.

    We do wonder about the title- “Fractured System” implies that the system at some time in the past was good, or better than it is now.

    The truth is, the entire concept of “child protection” has been a nightmare since it became a national issue beginning with CAPTA ’74 (Child Abuse and Treatment Act).

    Since that time, CPS has been a huge snowball of EVIL rolling down the hill, enhanced by several more new “laws”, not the least of which was ASFA’97 (Adoption and Safe Families Act). Which to put it bluntly was a “bullet to the head” of American parents.

    The truth is, the entire system should be dismantled, many of it’s employees put in prison for their Federal Crimes against families.

    The solution is extremely simple- Make child abuse a CRIME to be dealt with in actual, real, Constitutional Criminal Court instead of these “Civil” Family courts of NO Due Process.

    Leonard Henderson, co-founder
    American Family Rights
    http://fam­ilyrights.­us
    “Until Every Child Comes Home”©
    “The Voice of America’s Families”©

  3. Melanie Williams-Smotherman says:

    With this first in a series that takes an honest look into the typical family caught up in the Nebraska child welfare system, KVNO has done what so many journalists and news agencies are reluctant to do.

    As Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (nccpr.org) has said, parents caught up in the child welfare system are typically neither villain nor saint. Most are struggling through varied life challenges caused or exacerbated by poverty, but they love their children, and they aren’t child abusers.

    The NCCPR offers a 2-page issue paper titled “Who is in ‘The System’ – and Why,” (http://www.nccpr.org/reports/05SYSTEM.pdf) which explains that nationally:

    “Out of every 100 children investigated as
    possible victims of abuse, four are
    “substantiated” victims of all forms of physical
    abuse, from the most minor to the most severe,
    about two more are victims of sexual abuse.
    Many of the rest are false allegations or cases in
    which a family’s poverty has been confused with
    neglect.

    “Far more common than a child who
    comes into care because he was beaten are
    children who come into foster care because the
    food stamps ran out or because an illness went
    untreated after parents were kicked off Medicaid
    or because a single mother trying to stay off
    welfare could not provide adequate supervision
    while she worked.”

    And Nebraska fares much worse with those figures, because it takes children from their loved ones at one of the highest rates in the country. But as traumatizing as it is to have strangers take a child from her parents, what happens afterward compounds the harm done to children and to families – from unaccountable decisions by state workers to denials of due process to young children being forced onto psychotropic drugs to keep them compliant and “not acting up” while in the care of strangers.

    Of all the comments offered by DHHS’s Ms. Maca in this story, the most honest was when she acknowledged that parents weren’t asked about what changes need to be made for child welfare reform. What she didn’t acknowledge was the reason for this. It certainly isn’t an accident that parents are immediately pushed out of making any relevant decisions about their children’s lives once the state gets involved, and that disdain for the intrinsic value of birth parents to their children is carried over into all policies – both written and unwritten – practiced by the department.

    The only reform that will ever change the culture of Nebraska child welfare will be one that begins with the understanding of the irreplaceable value of family to children and works harder to preserve family bonds than it does to justify breaking families apart. Reform efforts will fail if the intent is focused on simply hiring more and more caseworkers and increasing the availability of foster care (i.e. stranger care) to address the obscenely high rates of unnecessary child removals.

    It’s time Nebraska take this rare opportunity to restructure, providing family-directed intensive preservation / wraparound services for those who would otherwise face a state that is too quick to make orphans of children with families who love them dearly.

    If you are a family that has been unnecessarily or unjustly caught up by Nebraska child welfare or juvenile justice, email your information to info@FamilyAdvocacyMovement.

    We collect family stories, track case information, and provide opportunities for families to connect with others through family support meetings.

    Melanie Williams-Smotherman
    Executive Director
    Family Advocacy Movement
    PO Box 540733
    Omaha, NE 68154
    familyadvocacymovement.com
    melanie@familyadvocacymovement.com

  4. Beverly says:

    foster care is NOT costly. The State of Nebraska paid me the whopping sum of 32 cents per hour to provide foster care. I have the check stubs to back up this statement.

  5. Beverly says:

    I might also add: when a 3 year old child asks his mother why he can’t go home and she doesn’t have the answer; the mother asks the professionals (Nebraska Department of Health of Human Services–the ones who physically removed the child from his home) what she should tell her 3 year old son–they reply the mother got from that “professional” is that she should tell her son that he is on “vacation”. Come on people, if you do this to families all the time–that is the best response you can give? No wonder I call you a bunch of GDI’s!!!!

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