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.
Posted by Brenda Vosik at Wednesday, July 17, 2013