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.


  1. Addendum to above comments: Today I reviewed the court documents relating to this case. I was specifically looking for any other reason besides absences that this child would be made a ward of the state, such as serious parental abuse or neglect. I found no mention of any other circumstances that would cause this mother to lose her parental rights. The only circumstances mentioned in the documentation were absences from school.

    I also noted that the mother’s youngest child was made a ward of the state last year for absences in 2010 and 2011 when the child was five and six years old. Like her sister, the absences were just over the arbitrary number of 20 set by our legislature. Both girls are now in the legal custody of the state of Nebraska.

  2. This is sickening. This reinforces my commitment to home school.

  3. Thanks for posting this Brenda. I wanted also to make mention that as I was leaving the juvenile court waiting room, I noticed it was nearly empty at about 2:35pm, except for a man and his teenaged son.

    I was immediately struck by them - not so much because the dad was appeared as a white, middle-class, businessman type and his son an older, well-groomed teenager - but more that the son looked as though he had never experienced this environment before and the dad made eye contact with me in a way that indicated the same.

    I considered going over to them and asking, "Is this a "truancy" case?" but I was already late leaving the courthouse to get to my next appointment (we teach enrichment chess class to 3rd - 6th graders once each week).

    Still, it nagged at me. I turned to see the pair again as I was going out the door, and the dad looked back - curious, as though he was wondering if I could help them or provide some sort of insight into what they were experiencing.

    This law MUST be repealed. It's outrageous. It's violative. It consigns children to the threat of becoming the property of the state from birth, where they can further be victimized by uncaring, and highly arrogant state bureaucrats. And it reduces parents to mere caretakers, who are constantly teetering on the edge of the legal system and having to ask permissions of school secretaries and 20-something junior county attorneys to take care of our own kids.

    I feel the pain of every parent and child who suffers under this tyrannical law, and that is what drives me to commit to abolishing it.

    Families are NOT slaves of the state.

  4. AnonymousMay 17, 2013

    Welcome to another day in Douglas County, Nebraska. Never fear.....the government is here to help you decide how to parent your own children. Think you as a parent have a right to decide when your child is too ill to attend school? Think again. Think you as a parent have right to decide if your family travels this summer rather than spend time in Omaha as your child must attend "mandatory summer school". Think again...this is not 2013....its 1984.

    The "friendly" staff at the Douglas County Attorneys office is "help you make parental decisions for your child". They will decide if your child is really sick enough to stay home from school or if you are really truly "cooperative" with the "authorities". My prediction is that soon we can all just turn our children over the authorities so that they can receive an "ideal" upbringing courtesy of your friendly DHHS caseworker and Douglas County Attorney. Cash payments from the state for all the participants.

    As a regular observer of the three ring circus called "juvenile court", I am here to report that guardian ad litems are frequently appointed not only for the kiddies but also for the parents of children involved in the action before the judge. What does that mean in english? It means that a JUDGE appoints an attorney to decide what is in the "best interests of your child" and another attorney is appointed for YOU to help the JUDGE decide what is in your "best Interests" regarding your relationship with your child. Think you know what is best for you and your family. Not so says the helpful, friendly staff at Juvenile Court in Douglas County Nebraska. WE KNOW what is best for everyone. Just ask us.

    If you are interested in the outrageous intrusion into families lives that happens each and every day in this county, please consider observing in Juvenile Court on the 6th Floor of HALL of JUSTICE - Douglas County Nebraska. Juvenile court is open to the public. Bring a notebook to take notes and prepare to be amazed.

    Come see with your own eyes, the army of lawyers making their living off the backs of children and families in this county. These folks know what is best for each and every one of long as they receive their regular allotment of county cash. One other important fact to share.....the same "best interests" lawyers DO NOT meet with their kiddie or adult clients, in violation of the LAW....How can this be you might ask....they are receiving tax dollars and they are attorneys....shouldn't someone do something about this......Nah, too much cash to be made as they sit in judgement of the families and children in our county.

  5. And after you do that, come sit in my neighborhood and watch kids of all ages wandering all over the place when they should be in school. Obviously something is broken.p

    1. Marjorie, I hope you are not suggesting that the best way to handle "real truancy" as you described is to cast a wide legal punitive net that catches students who aren't roaming the streets but are being cared for by their parents, who are sick, whose whereabouts are known and documented. I hope you aren't suggesting that good kids and their families should be harassed by county attorneys.

      I hope you don't believe that the best way to get real truant kids to engage in the classroom and stay in school is through the cumpolsory means of the court. Even for those kids roaming your neighborhood street there are better ways to inspire these kids to stay in school. Their lives will not be made better if they are simply forced to keep their butts in their seats.

      You are right to note that something is broken. First and foremost the social fabric is breaking down as the family is weakened, but the way to solve that isn't to make the government MOM and DAD. Families who struggle are not helped by the heavy handed compulsory "help" of the courts. This truancy law does not strengthen families but rather further disintegrates the familial bonds of parent and child.

      Secondly, the school system is failing our most vulnerable children! This is a failure at every level of government. We have created drone like education that is particularly poor in quality in our inner city schools. We are losing the attention of even our most willing learners at the very youngest age.

      To ignore the true causes of real truancy (skipping school, roaming the streets outside of parental knowledge or consent) and to throw thousands of ordinary kids into the court system as a way of monitoring and managing family life is an affront to the basic values of our nation and a real threat to the integrity of our families.