Families in Crisis


January 12th, 2012

Editorial Note: 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. Here, we take a closer look at one of the families featured in the story.

The Cook and Gilmore Family

Latoria Cook and Charles Gilmore live in a small, cramped apartment in South Omaha. Two framed school certificates hang on the walls, next to a taped-up picture with bubbled lettering that spells “Dailon.”

Dailon is the couple’s four-year-old son. “He’s a real smart kid,” Gilmore says. Gilmore is seated in front of a computer, with a large, hardcover book beside him: “The Supreme Court of the United States.” He checked it out from the library recently. “If I have to read this whole book, I will,” he says. “I’m going to learn.”

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

Gilmore and Cook are fighting to get their children back. It’s a battle that’s kept them in court for three years. And they say it’s kept them jumping through hoops, trying to reach goals laid out for them by the state, only to have the goal posts moved further away.

Their story begins with Latoria Cook’s oldest son, Quintel, who’s now seven. In April, 2009, when Quintel was five, Cook called the Department of Health and Human Services for help.

“I said, what do I do in the situation where my son’s hanging out the window?” Cook said. “Cops have been called to my house twice. I’m trying to do the best I can on my own with a new baby, two operations, you know, four children all together, trying to do the best I can. I said, but it’s just getting to the point… I need help.”

Cook says DHHS recommended Quintel be placed on medication, Risperdal, but she was resistant. She says the drug made him lose control of his “bathroom issues.”

“I said I do not like the damage this is doing to my son,” Cook said. “This is what it’s doing to the outside, what is it doing to the inside? He’s five years old, he doesn’t need to be on this. This is not the answer for him.”

Charles Gilmore is trying to study up on U.S. law, to find out what his legal rights are in the fight to get his children back.(Photo by Robyn Wisch)

Cook says Quintel was ultimately diagnosed with Autism. In April, 2009, court records show she placed him into state custody voluntarily, but Cook says she wasn’t aware she was signing away parental rights.

Along with Quintel, who is Cook’s child, the couple has three more children together. And after the state’s intervention with Quintel in April, their home continued to be monitored.

Those observations, documented in court records later that year, paint a disorderly and unsafe picture. At different points, the children throw fits, banging their heads against doors, punching themselves until they bruise. And Cook doesn’t intervene, according to the reports, at least not in time to prevent them from hurting themselves.

At the same time, the reports say, Gilmore was unable to provide a steady income to the household, and secure housing. Gilmore also has a criminal record, which includes burglary, prostitution solicitation, and possession of marijuana.

In September, 2009, the Department of Health and Human Services recommended to the court that all three children be removed from the home “as a matter of immediate and urgent necessity” for the children’s protection.

Since then, the department and Nebraska Families Collaborative, a private agency contracted by the state to manage child welfare cases, have set goals for Cook and Gilmore to reach in order to get their children back: attend regular therapy, find a steady job and stable housing.

But the couple says they have done everything they can to achieve those goals, but it never seems to be enough. While they admit they’ve had a troubled past, and struggled in their home, they say they love their children, and the family should not be apart.

“They’re split up so bad that when they’re together, they’re fighting,” Gilmore said. “They don’t understand anymore that you’re supposed to love your siblings. That’s not how a family’s supposed to be, when they’re raised in one household.”

The couple says their oldest son, Quintel, is now in his second foster home. The second oldest, Aision, 5, has been in nine foster homes. Their two youngest, Dailon, 4, and Chariyona, 2, have been in eight.

And with multiple placements, they worry some of the children have missed doctor’s appointments. The oldest, they say, is now suffering from epileptic seizures, which they believe could have been avoided. As he talks about it, Gilmore’s eyes fill with tears, and his voice cracks.

“I know they care about my children,” he said. But as their parent, “I will always do more.”

A spokesperson for DHHS, Kathie Ostermann, said the agency is unable to respond with any specifics about child welfare cases. But Vicki Maca, who heads DHHS’ child welfare reform effort says the department is committed to each child in the system to ensure they are safe.

And when they need to be placed out of the home, she said, the department does everything it can to make sure that time “is as short as possible, meeting their needs and getting them home safely as quickly as we possibly can.”

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