Saturday, August 3, 2013

Another NFF member observes Douglas County "truancy" court



On Monday, July 29, NFF member Stacy Ryan observed “truancy” court at the Douglas County Courthouse.  Stacy has a law degree, but attended merely as a concerned parent and citizen of our county.  These are her observations, comments, and opinions, in her own words:

“I attended the truancy "party" on Monday.  I say party because the number of times they said "We invited you,” was about five.  They "invited" these families to this meeting; if you are a radar kid they might "invite" you to come back and talk to the county attorney.   They also started the program by saying "Thank you for coming.”  Comments like this infer that attendance was voluntary and they are there for a casual meeting and sincerely offering help."

My Observations:
At least 100 people in that room. Standing room only by about 3:35 PM.
I found it curious that there were no teachers/principals or representatives from the schools present. If you get a speeding ticket and the cops don't show you can have your ticket dismissed.  The state needs a witness. Apparently if they "invited" you to this you are de facto "guilty"?   
After they explained that if you are a radar kid or a kid who needs diversion they added that, "We have not looked at all your files. We don't know your story."  If they don't know your story how did they decide between labeling you a radar kid or a diversion kid? 
The woman in charge explained that the people present might wonder why they were there because it’s summer.  She explained that they have a "backlog" of cases and this was the first opportunity to "invite" them all there. 
She explained that rather than filing a court case they "investigate" and decide whether to file.   I'd like to know what their "investigation" entails since they admit they do not know everybody's story.  HOW did they decide who to keep there?
She claimed diversion is voluntary. But they might feel the need to take it to court so it was to the families’ benefit to tell their story to them. 
I was shocked that it was announced that someone from probation was present to do urine analyses on children.  If a parent wanted to take advantage of that "we can set that up for you."  Are they offering to put your kid on probation??
Following is a list of different “service providers” present and what they offer:  Career counseling, mentoring, college credit, provide an advocate, tutoring, "help" for those struggling in school, they will identify the "barriers" to consistent attendance, therapy, they will meet at their homes or schools, behavioral issues, help and support for "anything".  By the way what does this cost and who's paying?
After the speeches from the providers, the radar kids could leave.  About 35 names were called off and they all headed for the door. I saw maybe two families go back to talk to the providers. Most people wanted the heck out of there. 
There was a family near the back with about five little kids.  I sat in back closer to this family and there was another family (two parents and a boy around age 11) in the very back a few seats from the woman with the kids. Grandma and Mom were trying to deal with a crying toddler and the other kids. The man with the 11-year-old at one point leaned over and said very loudly to the struggling Grandma and Mom:   "Shut the ****ing kid up!"  (this same family was let go and as he passed me he said loudly "Let’s get the **** out of here.”    
About 5-10 minutes later Deputy County Attorney Jordan Boler came to the Mom and Grandma (instead of calling them up front) and said she'd get them out of there because "You have your hands full."  Since they were really close to me, I could hear what Boler was telling them.  Boler made her pitch offering services and got out the two-part form I saw they used with everybody.  She wanted a good phone number for them, she wanted their agreement, she wanted to set up a future appointment.  She offered that "They can come to your house.”  Mom went along with it all. It appeared that the oldest child who looked to be about 7-8 was the diversion kid (she had pretty small children, I thought the MOM might have been the student).  At one point Boler looked at the 8-year-old diversion boy and said, "You are struggling? I know…we'll get you out of here."

A boy about 16 went up with his Mom.  They were Hispanic, there was an interpreter nearby and Boler talked to them too. The boy at one point expressed he didn't want their services. Boler was repeating what he said. "What happens if you refuse?"  She explained that they would then have to decide whether to take it to court.  The kid didn't want to agree and then Boler suggested that he could go sit down and "think about it.”

It actually took me about three cases to understand that the kids who had to stay were right then and there agreeing to diversion and services.  In the beginning it sounds like they are there to "help" them so it is not real clear that "help" means you agree to services which means you agree to be put on diversion.   I do not think the parents understand what they are getting into when they sign those forms put under their noses.  

The last couple I watched sat in front of me. Very quiet, very respectful. When they were called up, they listened intently to the prosecutor (a blonde girl named Cara).  The couple had a girl who was about eleven years old.  Dad talked intently to Cara after Cara went thru her schpeel.  I can't say for sure but it appeared he said something about wanting to handle their child themselves as far as services. They did not sign anything. After a long speech by Cara and the dad talking, the mom asked, "What happens next?" and Cara mentioned court in a long, roundabout way.  It appears to me they don't want to be direct with these parents maybe because face-to-face confrontation isn't anyone's idea of fun.  But when they present their services and form to the parents they ought to be required not to sugar coat it so the parents "get" that they are letting the government into their lives when they sign that form.

After observing “truancy” court, several things bothered me:

-          Cattle call forum. But, if you complain that this should be private what will they say/do to these families and no one can watch?
-          HIPAA issues.  It’s nobody's business if you do want services for your kid.  People telling their story in a loud room with three other prosecutors talking to others, interpreters repeating everything and chit chat going on the whole time. If you want to you can listen though.  These parents are forced to talk to these prosecutors with their child in front of a bunch of other people. Having to explain asthma or ADHD or any medical issue shouldn't be done in this forum.  A young kid can feel badly that their medical or mental issue is getting Mom and Dad in trouble.  In my opinion, those issues are none of the court’s business.

-          No school reps there to provide support to the claim that each kid missed 20 or more days of school. 

-          Time it took to do this.  Why are they wasting the time of the families of the 40 kids they labeled radar kids, and making them come down there only to let them go after they are forced to listen to these providers?  It’s got to cost them something too...I couldn't get a parking spot because of all the construction, not the easiest place to get into.  So you either plug a meter and hope this doesn't take more than 2 hours or pay to park across the street.  People likely took off work as well. 

-          No lawyer present for the families so that they could understand what they were signing (double edge sword there).  A lawyer isn't necessarily a good thing but it’s clear to me the parents don't know their rights, they are led to believe this is "voluntary" but they are then coerced because if they do not agree to the services they will be taken to court. 

-          Sing-songy attitude by the prosecutors claiming they "invited" everybody makes one think this is voluntary.  They say the word voluntary.  This is NOT voluntary.  They aren't real clear in the beginning that if you don't agree they will be going to court.  They don't make this clear until the families meet one on one with the prosecutor. THEN sometimes they got around to telling them they go to court if you don't agree.  The mom with all the kids was not told that court is what happens if she won't agree. That mom just went along with it likely because she did have her hands full, she'd been cussed at by another parent and she wanted out of there!  She signed off almost immediately. 

-          What does the form say that they are signing? 

-          What are these "appointments" the prosecutor sets up with the families signing the forms?  A court date?  Another “invitation”?  A private meeting?  They don't explain to the parents (unless the form says what it is).  Jordan Boler would say: "Let's set up an appointment."  She specifically set up September 4th at 3:30 with one family, which led me to believe it’s another "invite" to this cattle call meeting.  

I'd like to get a copy of the form and I'd like to see the "invite" that came to all these families "inviting" them to attend. 

I'd love to meet someone who believes this helped their child. 

I will be attending more truancy "parties”, even though nobody "invited" me.

11 comments:

  1. It sounds like absolutely NOTHING has changed since the NFF started covering this "truancy" law. Do we know if the numbers of cases being herded through this humiliating process has dropped since the 2012 amendment that allowed schools to be more particular about which students they referred for this treatment. Schools are no longer required to refer students at 20 days of absence. They have full discretion to excuse students absences and therefore full discretion to protect these students and their families or not. If a family ends up at the cattle call it was entirely because of their principle and superintendent.

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  2. Perhaps NFF members need to stand outside of these meetings and hand out flyers to parents advertising the NFF, it's efforts, and informing parents what there rights are.

    There are more family stories that are need to be published here and more families that need to know they can stand against this. They need to understand what they are in for when they sign the dotted line.

    I hope they will consider stories like this one from Millard mother, Martha Myles - a story that must be told!

    Martha’s daughter entered Douglas County “truancy diversion”, despite the fact that her absences were due to serious illness. Martha felt pressured into the "voluntary" “truancy diversion” as her only option to avoid court proceedings.

    Their personal lives were probed and Martha and her daughter felt violated by the whole process. Martha worked with doctors for years to diagnose the causes her daughter’s severe migraines and other related illnesses. She and her daughter endured the added stress of being under the constant scrutiny and monitoring of law enforcement for the “excessive absenteeism” of her daughter even though her daughters grades were very good.

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    1. Stephanie, we are working with the Latino and African-American communities on informing parents of their rights. According to those who have observed "truancy" court, it sounds as if possibly as many as 90% of the children involved are black or brown skinned, and about half are non-English speaking.

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  3. They are NOT Voluntary and as soon as you choose to not voluntarily participate, that is when the referral is made for you to be pursued by the court system. Such a Scary Shame!

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  4. One more must read that addresses the farse that this truancy law is about helping kids, inviting them to partake of benevolent services voluntarily; The NCCPR report (http://www.nebraskafamilyforum.org/2012/05/nccpr-report-truancy-sidebar.html)

    In August of 2011, more than 20 families were forced to gather at the Douglas County Courthouse for an exercise in mass humiliation that sounds like something out of the 17th Century.

    One-by-one the families, parents and children, were called to the front of the room to be publicly cross-examined by a deputy county attorney.

    In a bizarre move, apparently unheard-of in any other state and diametrically opposed to what national experts consider best practice, Nebraska has erased the distinction between an excused and unexcused absence from school. The very term “truancy” was replaced by “excessive absences.”

    Even a diversion program causes tremendous needless stress when there is nothing to divert. A “hammer” is not necessary to deal with a sick child because a sick child is not a nail. Neither is a child whose only crime is to have been a victim of bullies.

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  5. Laura McCormickAugust 03, 2013

    I tried to observe the "private" meetings this past Wednesday. I was told I would not even be able to sit in the waiting area. That may be due to the fact that I have been regularly attending and observing Truancy diversion this summer. I have also been very vocal my opinions regarding the process. Mr. Kleine has no business dispensing social services to families in our County. If the schools and superintendents believe that families need "services", they should be discussing these issues directly with the families they serve.

    I have taken the time to personally speak with several of the parents and children drug into this colossal waste of our tax dollars. Most the parents come from Omaha Public Schools. It appears as though this school district, in particular, refers any kid to the County Attorney at the 20 day mark. The reason for the absence (illness, family vacation, mission trips, athletic trips) is irrelevant, at least in the schools eyes. OPS is NOT doing its job. Instead, the district just passes the buck to the newest member of the bureaucracy..."The Truancy Diversion" team down at DO. CO. Remember....Senator Brad Ashford, relative of District Court Judge Mark Ashford (?), a lawyer himself created this monstrosity. When the law was passed, Sen. Ashford referred to the "crisis" in truancy in our state. Alas, the facts just don't support his outrageous rhetoric. We here in Nebraska have one of the highest rates of school attendance in the Country. While there are some schools and districts with attendance issues, Sen. Ashford failed to visit the area of our state with the greatest absenteeism problem. Thinking the "crisis" in OPS? Nope. The "crisis" is in Thurston County, Nebraska. Now for all Sen. Ashford's rhetoric, wouldn't ya know he has never visited the people of Thurston County. Why exactly do we "need" this legislation?

    Ambiguity about the "diversion" process is an important element. Many parents have no idea whether the "recommendations" are mandatory or just friendly suggestions from the young prosecutors. I do not believe ANY of the prosecutors have children or hands on parenting experience. Basically, if you get sucked into this process, the state (via Mr. Kleine's office) will be evaluating you, your parenting style, your child....lets get some "services" into the home so we can see just exactly what is going on. If we decide we don't like your "parenting style", we have detailed notes and materials we can pass on the the person who will be prosecuting you for "educational neglect". What is "educational neglect"? Well, I wish I could explain exactly what constitutes "educational neglect", but Ms. Boler had a difficult time explaining just exactly what the term means when I last chatted with her about my many concerns regarding "the diversion festivities" conducted each week at the DO CO courthouse.

    And what about GOALS ( the experiment funded by the Sherwood Foundation, the Hawks Foundation and other wealthy Omahans)? Well, I regret to inform you that less than 200 cases were "diverted" to GOALS last year. GOALS has been in existence for two years now. They have spent thousands and thousands of dollars helping less than 200 families last year. In the meantime, 3000 families last year were told they need to report to "Truancy Court" at the DO. CO courthouse. The parents called into "truancy court" take time off work, sit for a long period of time, and then listen to the the young prosecutors second guess their parenting decisions.

    Its not 2013. ITS 1984.

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  8. I would like also to add to what Laura McCormick reports about GOALS helping only fewer than 200 families last year, when during the same time period, thousands of families were being referred straight to the county attorney's office.

    Besides the Nebraska legislature causing families to be treated as Guinea Pigs through a process that mislabels and slanders children and families, routinely threatens child removals inappropriately, and allows prosecutors and judges to acts as pseudo social workers, educators, doctors, and even parents, what sort of "HELP" are we talking about??

    One family I closely followed whose sick daughter not only was dragged in front of Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich to "face her crime" of being highly allergic to foods, asthmatic, and poor, but then also *handcuffed* by the judge for expressing emotion after being told she was going to be REMOVED from her home - needed primarily two types of help: RESPECT FOR THE MOTHER'S ABILITY TO KNOW WHEN HER DAUGHTER IS TOO ILL TO GO TO SCHOOL AND ... RELIABLE AND SAFE TRANSPORTATION.

    Since the court and these pseudo social workers weren't about to give the benefit of the doubt to the girl's mother, that left only one issue to address: TRANSPORTATION TO AND FROM SCHOOL.

    I imagine this is one of the most practical issues many people struggling with resources experience, but with all the money thrown at GOALS, and these "attendance initiatives," you would certainly think that would have been an easy fix, right?

    Amazingly no.

    Even with constant requests by the family and my fervent advocacy, neither the school nor NFC (the child welfare management company) could muster up a single workable solution or effective referral to help a 90-pound teenaged girl (deemed "at risk" by the court) get from 93rd and Blondo to Omaha South High School.

    I heard GOALS helped some kids apply for library cards. I have yet to meet a single family who praises any of these systems, officials, and organization for offering the type of help families say they truly need.

    My guideline for knowing whether families are actually being helped is this: What service(s) is/are available and offered that would eliminate or alleviate the barriers IDENTIFIED AND ASKED FOR BY THE FAMILIES THEMSELVES?

    If you can't do that, you aren't helping at all. You are simply moving through a giving the appearance of propriety, forcing families and children to fit into predetermined "services" that disconnected interests came up with around a conference table while sipping Starbuck's lattes. It's a totally unworkable and UNhelpful paradigm.

    And THIS is why $50 million dollars has been mismanaged while these people continue claiming they should be trusted to create solutions for families. FUNDERS BEWARE! Anything can be explained with tortured statistics and fluffy, feel-good rhetoric. Go to the families themselves and ask how it's really going. We'll can help you out. And we won't even charge you a dime.

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  9. Hello, I am the grandma from the "cattle call" on July 29. I was there with my daughter ( age 26 FYI ) and her 4 children ( aged 8, 4,3 & 2 ). It was not planned that the kids, except the 8 yr old, to attend, unfortunately, it was unavoidable. I'll begin by saying that my grandson did indeed miss the days of school or at least partial days. All of those absences were excused. My daughter was never cautioned by the school, never called in for a conference. The first time she knew of the problem was when she received her "invitation" letter. This child is an excellent student, at or above grade level in most areas. This young family is struggling to manage against things most people can't even imagine. I look at them with pride, and I'm frankly amazed that the kids are doing as well as they are. Yes, they got out of control that day. They absolutely shouldn't have been there. The extremely loud and very rude man who yelled at us exacerbated an already bad situation. My daughter who is fighting for her very sanity after a total breakdown nearly collapsed after his outburst. The children were keying in to her hysteria. For the record, we did not agree to anything, other than attendance at the mandatory next meeting. The phone numbers they took were mine, as I am now advocating for both my grandchildren and my daughter. Both she and my grandson are already receiving mental health services, so the state's "help" i.e. interference is a moot point. Most of the conversation we had was with NFF's own Laura McCormick, who was most helpful. This "truancy" system is an absolute travesty. How ridiculous to throw frightened 8 year olds with documented physical and/or mental health issues in the same category with belligerent 16 year olds! The abuse of the system and it's power sickens this overwhelmed grandmother!

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  10. Please....please....get in touch with me as soon as possible. My personal e-mail is brendavosik@gmail.com. An 8-year-old child should never be in diversion, but the fact that all of his absences were excused makes a completely wrong situation even worse. This law, which criminalizes staying home from school sick, does not help families. As you are witnessing first hand, it causes great harm to families, especially those who are already struggling.

    If the school did not have a meeting with your daughter prior to referring your grandson to the county attorney, they have violated state statute. Isn't it interesting that the county attorney feels compelled to enforce only part of the statute (cracking down on absent kids) but they do not enforce the requirements placed on the school that are written into that same statute.

    I'm sorry to tell you that I think it's possible your daughter HAS agreed to diversion if she signed a form saying she would come to the next meeting. Once you agree to that, you're subject to whatever "requirements" the young county attorneys wish to place on you--mandated counseling (at your own expense), possibly home visits, whatever "services" they wish to mandate for you. Of course diversion is touted as "voluntary" -- but you better volunteer or the consequences could be dire.

    I would like to help you. I have no agenda other than: 1) helping children and families get out of this unwarranted entanglement with law enforcement, and 2) repealing this law entirely.

    I hope to hear from you soon and I will do my best to assist you.

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