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.

1 comment:

  1. Wow - makes me even gladder that we home-schooled our son with similar issues! However, we saw some benefits from nutrition and find that obviously missing in this article. Would the Garrity's be open to that discussion?