Saturday, July 27, 2013

MAYNARD FAMILY UPDATE



Yesterday afternoon, Jonathon Stellar, Deputy County Attorney from Deuel County, contacted Darla Maynard to let her know that the truancy charges against her son, Lucas, were being dismissed.  We are happy and relieved for the Maynards!

Mrs. Maynard’s account of the conversation with Mr. Stellar is quite interesting.  According to Mrs. Maynard, Mr. Stellar did not seem to accept any responsibility for the error made in filing truancy charges against a little boy with all excused absences.  Rather, he blamed the school district, claiming they “don’t understand the law” and therefore referred Lucas Maynard to the county attorney in error.

That is certainly an interesting diversion of blame.  Granted, the school district apparently didn’t understand that the amended law no longer required them to turn in every child at 20 days.  That is a problem the district will have to correct, but nothing that I have heard indicates to me that this referral was made out of anything other than confusion about the law.  The school district isn't completely blameless in this situation, but I will make this comment:  This is what happens when the schools become an extension of law enforcement.  These are educators, not police officers or prosecutors.  Interpreting law shouldn't be in a principal's job description, just like dealing with absenteeism shouldn't be in a county attorney's job description.  Our state has co-mingled these two functions, to everyone's detriment.

The real question is:  What is the county attorney’s excuse for filing these false and frightening charges?  What part of the law doesn’t he, the enforcer of that law, understand?  The school principal is not the one who accused Lucas of being a “juvenile who is habitually truant from home or school and deports himself in a manner so as to injure or seriously endanger the morals or health of himself or others.”  That was the county attorney who filed those charges, and he has no one but himself to blame.  The county attorney has complete discretion over whether or not any given charge will be filed.  He was provided with a letter from Lucas’s principal, which was even attached to the Maynards’ summons, in which she stated that all of Lucas’s absences were legitimate and that she was only turning him into the county attorney “under obligation of law.”  Indeed, the principal made a mistake, but what happened next was an even more egregious error.  The person who made the bigger mistake is the individual who is actually in charge of enforcing the law that he apparently doesn’t understand.  And who pays the price for that misunderstanding?  The same people who have been paying the price for this terrible law from day one:  Innocent children and families.

According to Mrs. Maynard, the deputy county attorney also seemed perturbed about the number of people who became involved in this situation, from the NFF to the press to a state senator.  He told Darla that if she would have just come to him instead of calling "all those other people," they could have worked it out.  As the discussion continued, Darla got a clearer understanding of what he meant when he said they could have “worked it out.”  Apparently his idea of working it out meant that the Maynards would hire an attorney, enter a plea in court on August 14, then return a month later for trial, where they would be found not guilty because, of course, their son was never truant in the first place.

Seriously, this is his idea of “working it out?”  First we’ll file false charges and scare your child half to death, then you can fork over a couple thousand dollars for an attorney, come to court three times, share personal information with strangers, have a guardian ad litem assigned (at taxpayer expense) to look after the “best interests” of your own child, and then, voila!  These charges will go away.  No big deal, no harm done, we’ve “worked it out.”  Right?  Wrong!  That is NOT the way our system works.

County attorneys aren’t our friends.  We don’t call them up and say, “Hey, buddy, you made a mistake and accidentally filed such serious charges against us that we might lose our child.  So let’s work it out, OK?”  Smiles all around. 

No.  A county attorney’s job is prosecuting criminals and recommending punishment.  Innocent and guilty people alike have a healthy fear and respect for county attorneys, as they should.  I can’t imagine a situation where it would be a good idea to call up a prosecutor and try to “work things out,” and I’m certain no defense attorney would advise any citizen to try this tactic!

The fact of the matter is, the Maynards did try to work it out, the legal way.  They came to court without an attorney in good faith, assuming a mistake had been made and the charges would be dismissed.  They brought their evidence, including the letter from the principal and their doctor’s notes.   But there was no “working it out” to be done.  Instead, their son was separated from them and compelled to sit between two strangers – a prosecutor and a guardian ad litem – while a judge told him he was a danger to the morals of himself and others and that he might be removed from his home.  His parents were not given an opportunity to speak or present their evidence.

In the Maynards’ case, there is plenty of fault to go around, and none of it lies with the Maynards:

  1. Our state legislature is at fault for passing such a terrible law.
  1. Senator Brad Ashford is at fault for writing this law and staunchly supporting it, in spite of full knowledge of the harm it is causing innocent families.  He is at fault for using his position as chairman of the Judiciary Committee to kill a reasonable amendment which would have cracked down harder on real truants, while protecting non-truant children.
  1. The school district is at fault for not understanding the amended law and turning over a child who had all excused absences.
  1. The Deuel County Attorney is at fault for filing charges against an innocent child.
The finger pointing in Deuel County happens throughout the state, as well.  Here in Douglas County, we’ve got a five-ring circus of schools, county attorneys, GOALS team leaders, legislators, and judges all blaming each other for how the law is being implemented.

So let’s get real here.  It’s not the way the law is being implemented.  The fact of the matter is, IT’S A BAD LAW AND IT NEEDS TO BE REPEALED.  We can’t make this law “better.”  We are three years into this and IT’S NOT WORKING.  Innocent families are still being attacked, children are still being harmed, public officials are still in denial, hundreds of thousands of dollars are still being spent.

And guess what?  Nobody – NOBODY – knows how or if this law is affecting truancy.  If you hear public officials say that the law is “working” because truancy is down, they are not telling the truth.  If they present “statistics” showing that truancy is down, don’t believe them!  The truth is, no one is measuring truancy; they are measuring attendance.  Sure, attendance is up statewide by about 1.5%.  (1.5% !  That’s IT!)  But the NFF suspects attendance is up because families like the Maynards are being terrorized into sending their children to school when they shouldn’t be there.  Families with legitimate absences are being put into diversion and forced to sign “contracts” to increase attendance under threat of law.  You bet, attendance is up.  But at what cost?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Letter to Gov. Heineman and Sen. Ashford



On Saturday, July 20, I sent the following e-mail to Governor Dave Heineman and Senator Brad Ashford, architects and staunch supporters of Nebraska’s “excessive absenteeism” law.

Gov. Heineman and Senator Ashford,

I am forwarding you a letter I sent this morning to Sen. Ken Schilz of Ogallala in regard to one of his young constituents.

This is how your "excessive absenteeism" law really works.  The Maynards' story is not an isolated incident; I have been wallowing in these stories of abuse and families' pleas for help for the past year, since I took over as director of the Nebraska Family Forum.

You both claim that this was never the intent of your law.  So my question is:  What are you going to do about it?

Brenda Vosik
Director, Nebraska Family Forum
 
The letter attached to the e-mail, addressed to the Maynards’ state senator Ken Schilz, detailed the outrageous charges filed against Lucas Maynard, a 12-year-old child whose only “crime” was staying home with his mother when he was sick.

Gov. Heineman and Sen. Ashford are both self-proclaimed supporters of families so I am certain they are appalled by the way their law is being abused.  My guess is that they will be spurred to action and rush to protect this young Nebraskan, perhaps even call the Deuel County Attorney and explain that their law was never meant to be used this way.

I’m expecting a response from both of them any minute, letting me know what action they’ve taken.  I will share those responses with the NFF membership as soon as I receive them.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

NEBRASKA'S ATTENDANCE LAW: IS IT ABOUT TRUANCY OR IS IT ABOUT MONEY?

THIS RESPONSE BY NFF MEMBER ANN SUMMERS TO THE MAYNARDS' STORY IS WORTHY OF ITS OWN BLOG POST.  IT IS RIGHT ON AND IT'S A FANTASTIC CALL TO ACTION.

Time to get out the laptops and write, write, write! When are people going to realize that this is all about money? It's not about criminality (that's what the police are for) and it's not about education (that's what teachers are for) and it is in no way about guiding our children (that's what parents are for) and it must stop. It's about money, money, money: putting little bottoms in seats. Only with bottoms in seats do schools get their cash, so you tell me, where is a schools' incentive to NOT rat out these children whose parents care enough about them to not send them to those seats sick, to run them over slippery roads, to throw caution to the wind so that a school can garner 15 minutes of attendance time.
This system is sick. But the County cannot be the bad guy entirely, when the money says otherwise. The school misses out on their cut, and they pass it on. The guardians and attorneys are all clocking time, and the money flows, like ca-ca, straight downhill. How long will we allow our children and their families to simply wash down onto this littered midden of unfortunates? People whose illness or families or lives will not allow them a minty fresh 365-day-a-year attendance, people who got sick, had weather, had bad luck, had life, people who were not the little cash-making machines they were expected to be? 

I left. I filed my homeschool papers and was done. Not everyone has this luxury. Not everyone wants to make this decision to opt out. But for everyone who wants in, who still trusts the state to educate and care for their children, you deserve to do so with dignity, without harassment and persecution. I am disgusted. Again.

Time to get out those laptops and write, write, write to anyone who has a hand in this horrendous excuse for education.

(Read here about the Summers family's experience when OPS began cracking down on attendance and ruined their children's love of school.  http://www.nebraskafamilyforum.org/2011/11/summers-family-lb800-targets.html)

Saturday, July 20, 2013

ABUSE OF TRUANCY LAW, AND ABUSE OF NEBRASKA FAMILIES, CONTINUES THROUGHOUT THE STATE



Another day, another abuse of Nebraska’s “truancy” law--the law that isn’t about truancy at all.

On June 19, the sheriff showed up at the Maynard home in Sidney, Nebraska.  Lucas Maynard, age 12, was commanded to appear in court on July 18.  The charges against him read as follows:

“Lucas Maynard is a juvenile who:  is habitually truant from home or school and deports himself in a manner so as to injure or seriously endanger the morals or health of himself or others.”

Lucas’ parents, Darla and Dennis Maynard were stunned.  Lucas had been ill several times during the school year, but his mother had communicated with the school every time and had given the school doctor’s notes whenever it had been necessary to take her son in for medical attention.  In addition, Lucas missed two days during inclement weather.  The Maynards live 16 miles from the school, Creek Valley Middle School in Lodgepole, Nebraska, and twice during the winter, the roads were impassable.

According to school district policy, an absence is considered unexcused if it is without parental and administrative permission.  This means all of Lucas’s 22 absences should have been excused (Mrs. Maynard is in the process of verifying that the school documented these absences correctly.)  Lucas kept up on his homework and his grades are good.

One of the documents attached to the summons was a letter from the principal, Katherine Urbanek, to the county attorney.  In the letter, Ms. Urbanek specifically states that she is referring the Maynards to the county attorney because it's the "obligation of state law.”  She then proceeded to explain that Lucas's absences were legitimate, he was conscientious about making up his work after being absent, he had maintained good grades and was passing all classes.  The principal specifically states, "In my professional opinion, Lucas's days of absence have not had a negative effect on his academic success."  Since the principal herself clearly states that Lucas's absences were legitimate, her assertion that she is obligated to report him to the county attorney is incorrect.  The 2012 amendment to the “truancy” law specifically states that schools are not required to turn children in to the county attorney if all absences are excused.

The law also states that “one or more meetings between a school attendance officer, school social worker or the school principal or a member of the school administrative staff, the child's parent or guardian, and the child” must be conducted to attempt to solve the problem of “excessive absenteeism.”  According to Mr. and Mrs. Maynard, Creek Valley Middle School never conducted this required meeting, and they were taken completely by surprise.

On July 18, the Maynards appeared in court where they were dismayed when their 12-year-old child was separated from them and compelled to sit in the front of the courtroom between the prosecutor and the guardian ad litem assigned to his false truancy case.  A bad situation got even worse when the judge read the charges against this innocent little boy and informed him that one of the consequences of his absences from school could be removal from his parents’ custody.

Mrs. Maynard described her son at that moment as “shrinking into his chair, white as a ghost.  He was terrified.”

Since the guardian ad litem did not meet with the Maynards prior to the hearing, the judge continued the false truancy case until August 14.  The Maynards have four weeks to hire an attorney and prepare a defense for their young, frightened child, whose only “crime” was being ill.  He is not a gang member, a drug user or a shoplifter.  He is not a minor in possession of alcohol or a vandal.  He does not "deport himself in a manner so as to injure or seriously endanger the morals or health of himself or others."  He is merely a young child whose mother kept him home from school when he was sick, like good parents do.  Treating him like a criminal is a stunning abuse of power.

I am sick and tired of hearing these stories!  Remember Gov. Heineman’s assurance that Nebraskans would use “good old common sense” when enforcing this law?  That’s not happening.  It’s not happening in Douglas County, it’s not happening in Lancaster County, and it’s not happening way out in Deuel County in the panhandle of our state.  As long as this law is used to abuse, terrorize, and tear apart children and families, the NFF will continue exposing that abuse and fighting to repeal this outrageous government assault on our families once and for all.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What's Really Going On In Truancy Diversion? Follow Up to May 9 Blog Post.




On May 2, three members of the NFF met with Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine and Douglas County Commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson.  We shared our concerns about the way Mr. Kleine's deputy county attorneys are treating families in diversion court (see link to May 9 blog post, which describes the Garrity family's observations in truancy diversion:  http://www.nebraskafamilyforum.org/2013/05/prosecutors-or-parents-one-familys.html ).

Mr. Kleine appeared to be very concerned that his staff has been giving orders that they do not have the authority to give.  Specifically, Mr. Kleine agreed that deputy county attorneys do not have the authority to order families to put their children into summer activities, to cancel their vacations, or to put their children into summer school.  I asked him if bad grades are against the law.  Mr. Kleine stated that no, bad grades are not against the law, and his deputy county attorneys should not be using a child’s academic performance to determine whether or not they should be in truancy diversion.

We also discussed the logistics of the diversion courtroom, and the lack of privacy it affords to families.  Mr. Kleine agreed to discuss these concerns with his staff.

In addition, we brought two specific cases to Mr. Kleine's attention:  One child with charges filed against her and one child in diversion.  Neither of these children are truant and we asked Mr. Kleine to investigate why his deputy county attorneys are pursuing them.

Mr. Kleine promised to follow up with his staff on our concerns and put a stop to any inappropriate directives being given to families.  He asked that we meet again within a few weeks to follow up on our conversation.

This follow-up meeting took place on June 26.  Mr. Kleine’s chief deputy county attorney, Brenda Beadle, was also present at this meeting.

Mr. Kleine reported that his staff denies ever giving orders to families that compel them to cancel vacations, enroll in summer school or summer activities, or get their grades up.  Mr. Kleine stated that perhaps there was some kind of misunderstanding; his deputy county attorneys claim they are simply giving parents helpful suggestions and parents may think those suggestions are orders enforceable by the court.  This explanation was followed by extensive discussion regarding the power the deputy county attorneys have over families.  Indeed, they have the power to refer these families to the juvenile court judge at any time and the judge has the power to take the children away from their parents.  No wonder families are scared of the county attorneys.  No wonder they don’t regard them as helpful problem solvers or their suggestions as optional.  These young, relatively inexperienced attorneys are in positions of enormous power over families.  They have the ability for any reason, or no reason at all, to strike at the very heart of a parent’s deepest fear—losing their children.  Regardless of intent, families take their "suggestions" very seriously.

I asked Mr. Kleine if any of his staff went back to the family that was ordered to cancel their trip to Mexico and tell them they were free to go.  He reiterated that this order was never given and that the deputy county attorney, Cara Stirts, has no memory of this family.  I asked Mr. Kleine to go back to Ms. Stirts and refresh her memory:  The mother was dressed in traditional Mexican dress, brought her own interpreter, and was ordered to return in June.  In my opinion, this would be a pretty easy person to remember and a pretty easy error to correct.

Mr. Kleine also stated at both meetings that sick children are not being pursued by his county attorneys. He said that he is embarrassed by letters that have been sent over his name to families of sick children and children traveling with their parents.  He assured us that the two specific cases we brought to his attention on May 2 had both been dismissed.

In response to the NFF's concerns about the way diversion court is conducted, changes have been made to the procedures with the intent to provide more privacy for the families.

Following the meeting on June 26, I contacted Michelle Garrity and discussed the denials by the deputy county attorneys regarding their behavior in truancy diversion.  Michelle was astounded that Deputy County Attorney Cara Stirts denied telling a family to cancel their trip to Mexico.  Michelle said that not only did Ms. Stirts make that order in front of everyone in the room, she also ordered the child to attend summer school and return to diversion court in June to show proof that she was doing so.  This did not sound like a suggestion to Michelle or her husband, who also witnessed it, as did the Region VI worker who was accompanying the Garritys that day.  Mr. and Mrs. Garrity are unequivocal in their assertion that this was not a helpful suggestion, it was an order.

There is a significant discrepancy between the Garritys' account of diversion court and the deputy county attorney's account.  Perhaps the Garritys are mistaken.  Perhaps Ms. Stirts has a short memory.  Maybe the deputy county attorneys need some coaching from a more experienced employee on communicating orders vs. communicating helpful suggestions.  Or perhaps there’s another reason altogether.

I intend to continue communicating with Mr. Kleine regarding the discrepancies between what families are witnessing in diversion court and what his staff is reporting.  Something is wrong here, and I am committed to getting to the bottom of it.