Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Connection Between Nebraska's Truancy Law and Mandated Mental Health Screenings

I would like to share some thoughts that have occurred to me in relation to mandated mental health screenings, the truancy law, and the way those two fit together.

Over the past 18 months, I have talked to and personally met a multitude of families with heartbreaking stories resulting from our state’s misguided attempt to force children to be in school every day, no matter what.  I have personally seen the abuses of this law by our assistant county attorneys, school district personnel and judges. 

I’ve spent countless hours pondering the agenda of those who wish to criminalize children and families for merely living their lives and making reasonable decisions that have been made within the family unit for hundreds of years.  I admit, I don’t have the answers.  I don’t know why parents are being assaulted by the very people they elect (politicians) and employ (school officials and government employees).

I am going to outline a scenario that has been going through my mind.  Although hypothetical, it is based on the realities of what I have personally seen happen to Nebraska families over the past two years since the truancy legislation was passed.  

A chronically ill child is referred to the county attorney after 20 days absence.  (In spite of last year’s amendment, some school districts are still referring students at 20 days regardless of the reason and letting the county attorney sort them out.)

The county attorney and his staff demand access to all the child’s health records to prove that the child was really ill and goes over those records with a fine tooth comb. We at the NFF know that assistant county attorneys are making interpretations and drawing conclusions about medical information and parenting with absolutely no qualifications to do so.  They have questioned parents about whether their child’s illness was really serious enough for 20 absences.  They have asked parents in open court what they’ve done to make sure their child doesn’t get sick again in the future.  They have questioned parents’ judgment and veracity in public meetings.  These assistant county attorneys feel empowered to question parents, and even doctors, and to judge every parental decision.  They even review a child’s school file and look at grades and minor disciplinary infractions in their quest to determine whether this is a child who “deserves” to be prosecuted for being absent.

In recent conversations with the Douglas County Attorney's Office, two members of the staff referred to a child’s grades as being reason why the child’s sick days needed to be scrutinized.  Really?  So having grades below A’s and B’s is a crime now too?  This is very frightening.  My son recently had two bouts of pneumonia and missed a week of school.  The timing of his absences fell at the end of the quarter so when quarter grades came out, his report card showed that he was failing two classes.  Of course he’s not really failing, he simply had missed a couple of assignments and tests during his illness which were promptly made up when he returned.  But those failing grades are now in his permanent record for assistant county attorneys to peruse and judge and prosecute.  The parent is then put in a position to justify, usually through an attorney costing several thousand dollars, why the child was failing at that one moment in time.  There is no reason a parent should ever have to justify this to law enforcement.  It has nothing to do with the truancy law and since a failing grade is not illegal (yet), it should be none of the county attorney's concern and should not factor into a decision on prosecution.

This expansion of truancy enforcement into grades, school detentions, and other aspects of a child's life having nothing to do with truancy cause me to wonder how long it will be before a do-good senator who is just “trying to help” introduces legislation that makes D’s and F’s (and maybe C’s) a status offense subject to prosecution.  Sound crazy?  Maybe – but did you ever think that sick children would be put on probation or diversion and be threatened with foster care?  Did you ever think a sick child would be handcuffed and arrested when she cried and asked the judge why she was being taken from her mother?  Did you ever think a sick child would be surreptitiously drug tested by a county attorney without her parents’ knowledge or consent?  Did you ever think a child with lice would be told to go back to class and not touch anyone because she’d already had too many sick days?  These are all true stories, so maybe the thought that bad grades will be made illegal is not so crazy after all.

So, with what we already know about the abuses of the attendance law, let’s think about these mandatory mental health screenings being in a child’s medical file.  It’s not a big leap to assume that the county attorneys will now use these subjective results to further penalize families.  Let’s say your child’s pediatrician--who, by the way, is not a mental health professional--concludes your child might have depression or ADHD because of a couple questions on a short survey.  As a parent who knows your child best, you decline to pursue treatment.  Your child happens to miss 20 days and is turned over to the county attorney.  The county attorney demands your medical records to prove that your child was really “sick enough” to miss 20 days.  Of course you can decline to hand those records over but you risk being prosecuted and threatened with the removal of your sick child, so you decide to provide the records to the county attorney.

In those medical records there’s that mental health screening.  Now the county attorney is tracking your “problem child” and questioning why you didn’t get treatment.  Next thing you know you’re accused of something you’ve never even heard of:  Mental health neglect.  Don’t laugh; it may not be a real term now but just wait.  They came up with the bogus crime of “educational neglect” so a new category used to criminalize parents is not a stretch at all.  The next call is to CPS.  Do you see where I'm going here?

If you think your child's mental health screening will be kept confidential no matter what, think again.  If you think it would never be used against you, think again.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist but something is very wrong here.  I don’t know what else to say except that OUR WORK IS NOT DONE.  We need to remain vigilant, we need to remain vocal, we need to keep standing up for our children and our parental rights and work to regain the rights that have already been taken from us.  We did not sign our parental rights over to the state when we enrolled our children in school.  We simply asked the schools to teach our children math, reading, social studies and science and we pay them a lot of our hard-earned money to do so.  Now we need to keep sending our message to the schools and the legislature until they get it:  Teach our children the basics and send them home for the rest.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

LB556 - Further explanation of mandatory mental health screenings

On January 30, I had a lengthy conversation with Amy Williams, legislative aide to Sen. Amanda McGill.  This conversation was helpful in understanding the intent of this legislation, which I personally believe is good intent at its heart, i.e., an attempt to help Nebraska children access mental health services.  However, good intent can have negative outcomes and that is what I fear with this bill.  Also, help isn’t help unless people want it; offering mental health services would be helpful, forcing those services under threat of law is exactly the opposite of help and one more step towards taking parents out of the equation in matters regarding the care of their children.

Upon my first reading of the bill, I was under the impression that telehealth services in the schools and the mandatory screening were connected.  They are not; they are two separate issues and I will address them separately.  For the purposes of this post, I am focusing on the mandatory mental health screening aspect of LB556.

I am extremely concerned by the mandate that parents must have their kindergartners, seventh graders and ninth graders screened for mental and behavioral problems.  LB556 as currently written allows no discretion by parents to make the decision whether their child receives a mental health evaluation.  The reasons a parent might not want this evaluation done are numerous:  The child may already be receiving mental health services, the parents may have religious objections, etc.  The reasons don’t matter and quite frankly, they are none of the legislature’s or the school’s business.  Parents need an option to refuse this screening, just as they have an option to refuse vaccinations.

By option, I do not mean an opt out, I mean an opt in.  Let me explain the difference:  An opt out situation means the screening will be done unless the parent proactively tells the doctor that they are declining it.  That would require every Nebraska parent to know that this screening is being done and to know that they have an option to say no.  That isn’t good enough; my guess would be that most parents would have no idea what was happening until it was over and the results of the screening were placed in their child’s permanent medical record.  What we want is an opt in.  In this case, the doctor can tell the parent that a mental health screening is available as part of the physical and that the cost is covered as preventative care.  The parent would have an opportunity to ask questions about what the screening entails, consider the interests of their child, and then choose how they would like to proceed with no repercussions for their choice.  After all, this is their child and they are the only ones in a position, after consulting with the child’s doctor, to make an appropriate decision on this matter.

I was initially confused when Ms. Williams said that the mental health screening mandate has nothing to do with entry into school.  Upon further discussion, she clarified that what she meant was the result of the mental health screening has nothing to do with entry into school.  The reality is that if a parent chooses not to subject their child to this mental health screening, under this legislation as currently written, their child will be refused entry into public school.  This is wrong on so many levels.

The public schools are supposed to exist as a service to Nebraska’s children.  The schools are supported by our tax dollars and school employees have a paycheck because of us.  I am increasingly alarmed and disheartened by the way the public schools are being used as a way to force parents and children into compliance with the latest “cause” of the legislature.  The 2010 truancy law fiasco is a prime example of this, as well as the mental health screening mandate in LB 556.

I will address possible unintended consequences of this mandate in another post.  For now I will leave it at this:  Without an amendment to LB556 allowing parents to opt in to the mental health screening requirement with no repercussions for their choice, the NFF will continue to vigorously oppose this legislation.  The NFF also opposes a third required physical at ninth grade.  We believe parents are perfectly capable of taking their children to the doctor as necessary and we do not need strangers to dictate when.

The good news is that it appears Senator McGill is considering our concerns and is open to amending the bill as requested.  We do not have a commitment that she will do so, however, so please continue expressing your wishes to her via letters, e-mails and phone calls.