Friday, May 17, 2013

OBSERVATIONS: A Truancy Case in Douglas County Juvenile Court

This past Wednesday, I was at the Douglas County Courthouse and quite by accident, I ended up observing a truancy case. 

Here is what I saw:

Two representatives from Omaha Public Schools were sitting in front of me with attendance reports, prepared to witness for the prosecution.  Prior to the hearing, they conferred with the Deputy County Attorney about their testimony.

The prosecutor, Cara Stirts, came in and began joking with the guardian ad litem, Maureen Monahan, who is assigned to represent and protect the best interests of the children in court.  The two of them sat together on one side of the courtroom, while the mother’s court-appointed attorney, Claudia McKnight, sat on the other side.  Ms. McKnight soon joined Ms. Monahan and Ms. Stirts in their enjoyment and began joking along with them.

As the time for the hearing drew near, Prosecutor Stirts commented that, “Mom isn’t here yet.  If she doesn’t show up, we’ll just go ahead without her.”

A few minutes later, the mother stepped in the door.  Her court-appointed attorney, Ms. McKnight, jumped up from her chair and hustled Mom out the door saying, “We need to talk.”  They proceeded to confer in the hallway.  A few minutes later, they returned to the defense table and the defense attorney whispered briefly to the prosecutor.  I overheard the mother telling her attorney that her daughter has asthma.  I did not hear the attorney’s response.

After the judge came into the courtroom and called the hearing to order, the prosecutor stated that the mother “admits to counts 1, 2A, B, D, and E,” and that count 2C would be dismissed.

The prosecutor also stated that “the evidence will show the child had 23.3 absences at Sunny Slope Elementary School in 2010-2011 and 19.5 absences at Nathan Hale Middle School in 2011-2012.”  She also stated that although the school district had provided an attendance mentor and a bus, the mother “did not work with the school” to improve attendance.

The judge asked the mother if she was freely admitting to the charges and she said yes.  Throughout the hearing, the mother’s attorney, Ms. McKnight, did not speak at all.

As the hearing neared its conclusion, a DHHS employee who was in the courtroom for another case, whispered something to the guardian ad litem, Maureen Monahan.  Ms. Monahan informed the judge that the child in question is not a ward of the state so the state won’t be able to pay for services.

The judge then made the child a ward of the state of Nebraska, but allowed her to reside at home with her mother until a permanency hearing in July.  The judge ordered the mother to compel her child to attend school and to have no unexcused absences or tardies.  The judge also ordered the mother to keep a chart of any absences due to illnesses and to make sure her daughter takes all medications prescribed by a physician.

EDITORIAL COMMENTS:  My observation of this court hearing was not eye opening; rather, it only confirmed several of the disturbing aspects of what we in the NFF have suspected is going on in truancy court.

  1.  The NFF has contended that guardians ad litem (GAL) in Douglas County are in collusion with the juvenile prosecutors to criminalize and punish families and children, rather than do a diligent job of independently representing the child’s interests.  Our NFF members who have had the misfortune of being taken to court for “truancy” hearings have reported that they don’t even know the guardian ad litem is supposed to be objective and independent, because the GAL sits with and confers with the prosecutor throughout the hearing.  Yes, you read that correctly--the guardian ad litem sits with the team of people whose job it is to prosecute and punish the child, not with the family and child that the GAL is paid (with our tax dollars) to represent. A representative from the Douglas County Attorney’s Office vehemently denied our charge of collusion during a conversation with me last December.   I responded that families who have experienced guardians ad litem don’t believe those denials, and neither do I.  Right now, I believe it even less because I saw it with my own eyes:  The GAL was conferring with the prosecutor, and there was no discussion or contact between the GAL and the mother, whose child the GAL is supposed to be representing.

  1. I was also very disturbed by the lack of defense provided by the court-appointed attorney.  When the NFF is contacted by families being attacked for “truancy”, the first thing we recommend is that they hire a private attorney.  We believe that is the only way families have a chance of being treated fairly in juvenile court.  What I saw today only reinforces my belief that some public defenders do not serve their clients well.  This attorney literally said nothing—not one word.  I don’t know what was discussed with the mother in the hallway, but my guess would be the public defender was convincing the mom to plead guilty.  Was this child really truant?  I don’t know the answer to that and I don’t pretend to know every detail of this family’s life.  What I do know is that I heard the mother trying to explain to her attorney that her child suffers from asthma.  What I do know is that families face unique challenges in their daily lives, and those challenges and unavoidable parenting mistakes do not mean a child is not loved and cared for.  Those challenges and mistakes do not automatically mean a child should be placed into the custody of the state.

  1. I am curious what was meant by “the mother did not work with the school to improve attendance.”  We have heard the words of parents twisted by officials too many times for me to put much stock in this statement.  There are parents in the NFF who have declined truancy diversion or the assistance of the GOALS team because their child is sick, not truant, and they ended up being described in court as “uncooperative.”  Therefore, a prosecutor accusing a mother of “not working with the school” isn’t indicative to me of a problem with mom; in my opinion, it is equally likely that it’s just one more indicator of the disdain and mistrust with which parents are treated by the juvenile justice system.

  1. Two weeks ago, I met with the Douglas County Attorney and pointed out that his staff is playing catch up by pursuing charges against children for absences as far back as 2010.  The County Attorney responded, “That can’t be right,” and said he would check into it.  Unfortunately, what I witnessed this week proves that indeed it is right that children with absences from three years ago are still being pursued by the deputy county attorneys.

  1. We trust the public schools with our children for seven hours a day, but the truancy law has driven a huge wedge of mistrust, cynicism and fear between families and schools.  This was very apparent yesterday when I saw the OPS employees preparing to testify against the family of a young child who has been entrusted to their care.

  1. How many times have NFF members heard the reassurance, “Don’t worry, we’re not really going to take anyone’s kids.”  Really?  Because today, I saw a child made a ward of the state for being absent from school.  Although the child is still “allowed” to live with her mother, that mother’s rights have been turned over to the state.  She is no longer the ultimate authority on important decisions regarding her own child, the State of Nebraska is, and this mother may not even realize it.  Stephanie Smith Morgan raised the alarm back in 2010 that this law was simply a “gateway law” into the lives of families.  She was exactly right.  Absenteeism – not truancy – absenteeism is being used to invade families’ privacy, to second guess parental decisions, to punish parents and children for normal mistakes and life challenges, and to throw more children into Nebraska’s broken DHHS system.

Based on what I saw this week, it appears that what we thought was true about truancy court, really is.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Prosecutors or Parents? One Family's Experience in Truancy Diversion

When the Garrity family was sent to truancy diversion due to the absences and tardies of their autistic son, it was an eye opening experience for them.

Although she was upset about her son having to participate in diversion, even though his absences were due to mental health issues covered in an I.E.P., Michelle Garrity was even more troubled by what she witnessed in the diversion sessions.  Here is her account.

“There were approximately 25 to 30 families at the April 25th diversion session, which was held in a courtroom at the Douglas County Hall of Justice.  A good majority of the families needed a Spanish speaking interpreter, so those families were moved to the other side of the room.  All the families sit in rows of chairs and the assistant county attorneys sit at two tables in the front of the room.  They come around with a list and you give them your name.  They check you off the list, and then you sit and wait for your name to be called.  When your name is called, you go up to the table and stand in front of the county attorneys.  Nothing is private, you can hear everything.  Every personal issue regarding your child and your family is discussed in front of all those strangers.

“Some of the children are sent out of the room to have a drug test.  When I asked the Region VI representative why some kids were submitted to drug tests, she said it was to confirm if they needed drug counseling.

“All of the assistant county attorneys are very young.  The one assigned to our case, Sarah Graham, was particularly young and she was brand new, so she had another attorney standing behind her, coaching her on what to say.  She asked my son what his summer activity plans were, which I thought was crazy.  That is personal family business and has nothing to do with diversion.  But I just told her that he was taking guitar lessons and continuing with his counseling.  Ms. Graham clearly didn’t know what to do with our situation and I can see why—my son doesn’t belong in truancy diversion.  He has mental health issues, he’s not truant.

“During this same session, one of the young prosecutors, Cara Stirts, asked a family what activities they were planning to put their children in during the summer.  When the family responded that they didn’t have anything lined up, the prosecutor ordered them to get their kids signed up for activities such as the Boys and Girls Club, and report back to her in June about those activities.  She also ordered the child to get his grades up.

“Even more disturbing was the treatment of a Mexican family who was there that day.  This family had a young daughter who appeared to be about 12 or 13 years old.  The mother brought her own interpreter since she spoke no English.  Initially, the child was praised by the prosecutor because she was doing so much better.  She hadn’t missed anymore school and her grades had improved.  However, when the prosecutor, Ms. Stirts, asked the mother what their plans were for the summer, and the mother responded that they were going to Mexico to visit family, the prosecutor informed her that they would have to cancel their trip because the daughter has to attend summer school.  The prosecutor ordered the family to report back in June.  This order effectively put a halt to the family’s summer plans because the diversion contract, which each family is required to sign before leaving, states if the contract is broken, the County Attorney can choose to file against the family in Juvenile Court.

“I was so disturbed by the way these families were treated.  It was as if the young prosecutors thought their job was to parent these kids.  But these children already have parents!   I didn’t know assistant county attorneys had the power to order a family to cancel their summer vacation, to put their child in summer school, to sign up their children for summer activities and to get better grades.  I thought those were parental decisions.  I am afraid that pretty soon these assistant county attorneys will be trying to dictate the personal decisions in our family, even though they have no idea the challenges our family faces every day with an autistic child.  That’s why I decided I needed to tell someone about what’s really going on in diversion court.”

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Diversion from Autism? The Garrity Family's Story

For a child only 15 years old, Dirk Garrity has faced his share of struggles.  He has been diagnosed with autism, social phobia, and lack of impulse control.  His parents have done everything in their power to get him the help he needs to succeed.  Dirk has a psychiatrist, a therapist, and a behavioral specialist who all work with him regularly.  He also has an I.E.P. (Independent Education Plan, which is a uniquely developed plan for special needs children within the public schools) and is in the behavioral program at Omaha's Central High School.

Because of his social phobia and issues with bullying, Dirk's parents often have difficulty getting him to school on time, or sometimes getting him to school at all.  School is not always a pleasant environment for Dirk and he often dreads going.

Last year, the Special Ed team at Bryan Middle School worked hard to make the accommodations Dirk needed to be successful, including setting out a half-day schedule for him.  However, under the old truancy law--before an amendment was passed to protect non-truant students--Dirk had to be turned in to the Sarpy County Attorney for absences and tardies that reached 20 days, regardless of the reasons for his absences.  (Even though he was in OPS, his middle school was located in Sarpy County.)  Facing the legal system, the Garritys hired a private attorney and the judge immediately dismissed the case, saying that Dirk doesn't belong in truancy court since he is not truant, but rather has mental health issues.  He praised Dirk's mother for doing a good job parenting and offered her the opportunity to explore additional resources and financial reprieve via Region VI.  The Garritys were assigned a Region VI Behavioral Health case worker to help them maneuver through the mental health care system.  The judge made it clear that their involvement with Region VI was voluntary.

Dirk started his freshman year at Central High School in the fall of 2012.  It was a difficult transition and the school admitted they didn't know how to "handle" Dirk.  Soon, they began "handling" him by sending him home, sometimes even suspending him for days at a time in spite of the fact that he has a behavioral I.E.P.  It wasn't long before the absences began building up.  The more difficulty Dirk had at school, the more he dreaded going, and tardies also started racking up.  Dirk did get involved with the Social Skills Club, which he greatly enjoyed.  However, Central High School staff kicked Dirk out of this club after three meetings because of his tardies.  They told his mother that if Dirk can't make it to school on time, then he hasn't earned the privilege of being in the Social Skills Club.  This decision was made in spite of the fact that the school was fully aware of Dirk's issues and this club exists just for students like him.  In any case, that was the last straw for Dirk.  Now there was nothing to look forward to, and his parents had more difficulty than ever getting him to school.

Enter the Douglas County Attorney's office.

At some point during the current school year, Central High School turned Dirk over to the County Attorney for "truancy."  Even though the law no longer requires it, OPS still turns every child over to law enforcement at 20 days absence.  Dirk had reached the 20 days mainly due to accumulated tardies and his file was sent to the Douglas County truancy committee which decides, without meeting the child or parents, whether the case should be sent to court, sent to diversion, or dropped.  According to Mr. and Mrs. Garrity, the only two options presented them by their Region VI case worker was going to court or accepting truancy diversion.  This same case worker, who sits on the truancy committee, assured the Garritys that she was really going to bat for Dirk by recommending diversion rather than court.  Not realizing there was a third option, that no action be taken at all, the Garritys chose the lesser of two evils--diversion.

The NFF's question is:  Diversion from what?  Diversion from autism?  From social phobia?  What is the purpose of bringing a young man like Dirk into the juvenile justice system?  What is the benefit to Dirk of involving law enforcement in his life, particularly inexperienced prosecutors with no knowledge of the challenges Dirk and his parents face daily?  Aren't the State of Nebraska and Douglas County pushing for fewer children to be put in our juvenile justice system?  What is the point of throwing a child like Dirk Garrity into that system?

We also have questions about the Region VI case worker who is fully aware that taking no action was an option in this case.  Pushing for truancy diversion wasn't a favor to Dirk, it was a disservice, and a harmful one at that.  It's interesting to note that although the Garritys began working with Region VI voluntarily in the hope of getting financial assistance for Dirk, now their diversion contract requires them to continue working with Region VI under threat of charges being filed by the County Attorney's office.

Dirk has attended two diversion meetings so far, one in March and one in April.  Diversion meetings are a nightmare for a child like Dirk.

They take place in a Douglas County courtroom and are run by prosecutors.  25 to 30 families attend at once and there is no privacy.  Each child is called up in front of their prosecutor's table and made to stand there and discuss their personal issues in front of the whole room full of other families.  The process and environment is so extraordinarily invasive and damaging to a child like Dirk that he became extremely agitated and disruptive and began threatening suicide.  The prosecutor assigned to the Garritys is brand new and had to be coached by another prosecutor standing behind her, telling her what to say to the family.  Mrs. Garrity said it was obvious the prosecutors had no idea what to do with Dirk, so they just ordered him to come back in August.   No wonder they have no idea what to do with this child--he doesn't belong there!  How misguided and uninformed do you have to be to force an autistic child with social phobia into an environment like that and not realize that he is being harmed rather than helped?  How misguided and uninformed do you have to be to not realize that this child isn't truant in the first place?

The following day, Mrs. Garrity had to take Dirk to his therapist and get him restabilized after his traumatic appearance in diversion court.  In other words, the real support systems in Dirk's life are left to clean up the mess made by the professionals within the truancy system who say they are "only trying to help."

We do not know the end of this story yet.  The NFF has asked the Douglas County Attorney to personally intervene and get this child out of the system before he is further harmed.  It is the NFF's goal to get families like the Garritys out from under this destructive abuse of the truancy law.  It is our goal to bring these situations to light via our blog and Facebook page, as well as by utilizing the mainstream press.

Although the NFF sometimes advocates for individual families by going directly to the County Attorney on cases like this, that approach is simply a band-aid.  We believe that for every family brought to our attention, there are many, many more in the same situation who don't know where to turn for help.  Many of them simply surrender to the system and their children are irreparably harmed.  It is our goal to get these harmful abuses stopped once and for all.  We will continue to bring this fight to the press and to the legislature until the truancy law is overturned and Nebraska parents and families are given back the respect and rights they deserve.