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 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)

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.”

3 Responses

  1. Melanie Williams-Smotherman says:

    DHHS hides behind the “confidentiality” excuse in avoiding public scrutiny. For every case investigated by journalists and family or child advocates, officials all-too-comfortably play two diversionary cards: The first is “Well, if you only knew the whole story, you would understand why we took her children.” And when you questions what sort of information they could possibly be talking about, the follow-up tactic is always “Confidentiality laws prevent us from discussing individual cases.”

    So let’s address these issues.

    To begin, not one parent or grandparent calling for investigation of their cases believes that the confidentiality laws are being used to benefit their own children or families against what they have experienced as an abuse of power by officials.

    Transparency is severely lacking in child welfare, which must be addressed in a real way, if we want to see significant reform in Nebraska.

    Confidentiality laws were enacted – or put forth to solicit public support – as protections for OUR privacy, not for the privacy of state and agency officials.

    Therefore, if a family provides explicit permission for a journalist or advocate to gain access to their private information, the state should no longer be able to use that excuse as justification for keeping their activities a secret, right?

    We at the Family Advocacy Movement have gained willing family permission for their cases to be openly discussed with us, but it’s amazing how quickly DHHS throws up barriers to prevent open reviews from happening.

    Still, can they stop it entirely? Ultimately, I don’t think so. More of us need to push for this transparency and call officials out for hiding behind manufactured claims that they are using to protect themselves, at the expense of families and children.

    Perhaps KVNO can try it and report on its findings. Don’t just take Kathy Ostermann at her word and leave it at that. Press her to provide DHHS’s form for the family to sign which would provide you with the family’s permission to have access to records and to speak with officials openly about their case.

    First, DHHS will say you have to use THEIR form – that they require their own paperwork to be signed by the parent(s). So be it; they have them. I’ve requested them and after some struggle, I’ve acquired them. It’s not always easy to get the form, since there’s a lot of obfuscation going on in that agency, but with persistence, it’s possible.

    I suspect the next tactic encounter by KVNO would be for DHHS to seek a gag order from a judge to prevent public discussion about the children, on the grounds that the state is just looking out for their “best interests.” Don’t buy it. It’s a diversion, and it’s unconstitutional.

    Unfortunately, state workers – directed behind the scenes by their supervisors and administrators like Vicky Maca and Kathy Ostermann – as well as all other officials working hand-in-hand with DHHS – find all sorts of hideous ways to retaliate against the families for going public to expose serious sytemic problems.

    But many families believe they have less to lose getting their stories out than they do by remaining isolated and at the mercy of destructive and secretive decisions on the part of state workers.

    Besides, exposing these system abuses may help other families not have to go through the same horrific experiences, and that is very compelling to people who care.

    Melanie Williams-Smotherman
    Executive Director
    Family Advocacy Movement
    PO Box 540733
    Omaha, NE 68154
    [email protected]

  2. Frustrated In Omaha says:

    It is KVC. They make money by placing kids outside the home.. BILLABLE HOURS!!!! They took my kid from me ,”called it voluntary” but wouldn’t let me place her with her grandparents (pastors that run a church), becuase she might miss “voluntary” therapy. I have no court case, no court involment, no police involvement. I self-reported a problem with my daughter and asked for guidence. She ends up being trested less than a criminal, foster care, and forced to do things she doesn’t want. Until I hired a lawyer (something my 12.50/hr can’t afford). No i finally have control. ABUSE ABUSE ABUSE!!

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