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 Theye Family
Seated on the couch in the family’s living room, Joan Theye sits between her two oldest daughters, with her youngest one at her feet. Leneada, 14, is cuddled up on her right, her arm around her mom’s waist and her head resting on her shoulder. Yevonne, 12, sits curled up on her other side, squeezing in between her and the arm of the chair.
The three are so squeezed in, in fact, that at various times during our interview, Joan Theye’s face is barely visible, her daughters are huddled so tightly to her. At another point in the interview, Leneada looks up at her mom from her spot on her shoulder, and gazes at her with a sweet smile. Theye stops mid-sentence and laughs, ‘What are you doing?’
“I don’t get to see you very often,” Leneada says, cuddling up even closer until the space between them disappears.
I visited Joan Theye in her new home in Bennington, Neb., during a regularly scheduled visit with her three daughters. The girls visit their mother for a few hours, four times a week, while court-appointed visitation workers observe from a few feet away.
The youngest girl, Cassie, 10, was seated, generally, at her mom’s feet. But she would spring up every now and then to find toys, or chase the family’s two cats. When it came time to take the family picture, Cassie flew away to the bathroom to fix her hair, and put on a bit of lip gloss for the camera.
The Theye family first came to the attention of the Department of Health and Human Services in December 2006, when they were living in Wahoo, Neb. “That experience, what do you guys think? Compared to what (we’re) going through now…” Theye asked her kids. “That was nothing.” Leneada replied.
That experience began with a call to police. Leneada, who was nine at the time, was refusing to go to school, and her mother called for help. According to court reports prepared by DHHS and provided to KVNO News by Joan Theye, police arrived to take her to school and Leneada physically assaulted one of the officers. She was taken to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation, and soon after, was made a ward of the state.
Theye said she didn’t like the way the police took Leneada away, but overall, her dealings with DHHS were helpful, and the experience was positive. “The people were just so nice,” she said. “I saw it as a learning experience.”
Leneada was never removed from the home. Joan Theye was given access to a family therapist, and attended classes at a crisis center in Fremont. The family was kept together, while a DHHS caseworker monitored their progress.
In the reports, the caseworker attributes Leneada’s outburst to domestic violence in the home. Shortly before the incident, Leneada’s father, Chad Theye, was charged, and found guilty, of domestic assault.
The caseworker at the time recommended Theye maintain a protection order against her husband, and not allow him to have any contact with her daughters if she suspects he has been drinking. “She taught me so much,” Theye said. “And I’ll always remember the last thing she said to me was ‘Joan, whatever you do, just promise me you won’t take him back.’”
But just a few years later, DHHS would once again get involved with the Theye family. This time, the state would recommend the children be removed from Theye’s home, and placed with their father, the same person DHHS had recommended the children stay away from in 2007.
Theye says her two experiences with the system couldn’t be further apart. This time, she says, she feels the state is working against her to keep her children out of her home.
“The difference between then and now is… it feels like there’s just a lot of trickery,” she said. At first, she said she blamed KVC, the private agency contracted by Nebraska to manage her case. But, “it’s really not their fault,” she said. “They’re trying to do their job. But it’s just the whole system, it’s just not right.”
The Theye children were brought into the system because they had missed weeks of school. Court records show the children missed between 21 and 40 days of school that year, and were not yet enrolled by late September. The records also say the children were near homelessness. But they make little mention of the father’s history of domestic violence and alcohol abuse.
A spokesperson for DHHS, Kathie Ostermann, said the agency is unable to respond with any specifics about child welfare cases. But she said, generally, the agency is required to perform background checks for any relative placement. Those include checks with local law enforcement, state patrol and the sex offender registry. Ostermann also noted placement outside the home is a decision of the courts, not DHHS.
But, according to Joan Theye, that decision simply doesn’t make sense. And she worries about the impact of the separation on the kids, especially the youngest, Cassie, 10.
According to her older sisters, Cassie 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.”