Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Shiech Family: "Terrified they would take my child, they stole my final goodbye"



Mary Ann Shiech lives in the Lincoln Public School District and is the single mom of three sons.  Mary Ann suffers from a serious immune deficiency illness, which is exacerbated by stress, and leaves her unable to work outside the home.  In spite of that, she is a college-educated community activist who doesn’t hesitate to devote her time and talents to speaking out against injustice.  Mary Ann bravely shares the story of her ordeal with Lincoln Public Schools, which turned her non-truant child into the county attorney, not just once, but three years in a row.  Each year, Mary Ann was prosecuted by the Lancaster County Attorney and had to retain legal counsel.  As is common with the Lancaster County Attorney’s office, each of the unfounded cases were dragged out until the last minute and then dropped right before trial.  The stress on Mary Ann’s family and the toll on her health have been enormous.  Here is her story.

The first of three truancy charges came after my son Jeramiah’s last year of elementary school  had already ended.  Jeramiah was attending Everett Elementary and had been the victim of bullying for years. The abuse came to a head when he was stabbed in the back with a pencil by the same child who had been constantly bullying him for years. The school did not even call me to inform me of the incident.  Since Jeramiah had been victimized for two years and the school had made zero progress in dealing with the issue, I took him to the police station, had his wound photographed, and filed charges.  I then called Lincoln Public Schools administration, told them about the incident, and informed them that as a parent, I could not send my son to school unless they could guarantee he would be safe. I checked in with administration and the school daily while my son kept up with his school work at home. They refused to remove the other child from the classroom or offer any action that would assure me the situation was being taken seriously or that any changes would be made.

When I realized that Everett Elementary was not going to resolve the problem, I put Jeramiah into McPhee Elementary, where he finished the year with no issues. After the school year had ended, I discovered that the school had turned me in to the county attorney and the county attorney had filed truancy charges.

That first time, it wasn't required that I bring Jeramiah for an initial appearance; our attorney took care of that.  After a proper investigation, charges were dropped, as it was found I was acting in my child's best interest and the school was not.  My question is, why isn’t an investigation done before charges are filed?  Isn’t that how it’s done with all other crimes?  There was no reason to ever bring my family into court.

The next year, my son began having stomach aches and missing school. This culminated in him being admitted to Bryan Hospital. He had enlarged lymph nodes in his mesenteric pouch, in the bowels, and they were literally "twisting" his bowels. He was hospitalized and given morphine to manage the excruciating pain.
Due to his absences because of this illness, the school turned me in to the county attorney before Jeramiah had even missed 20 days, and the county attorney filed truancy charges before he had missed 20 days.

I was horrified that, this time, I had to bring my son in for the judge to terrorize him by saying that he might be removed from his home until he was 19 years old.  Jeramiah was scared to death and didn’t understand why he might be taken from his mother because he was sick!  We were assigned a lawyer at the initial appearance, but when we didn’t give in to the pressure to “volunteer" for the truancy diversion program, I was told he could not represent me.  We didn’t “volunteer” because why should my son have to go to diversion when he was sick?  What was he supposed to be diverted from?  So we got another lawyer, the county attorney held on to the case for a long time, and shortly before trial, the case was dropped because all of his absences were due to illness and all the documentation was there.  Everyone knew from the very beginning of this process why he was absent, and everyone had the documentation from day one, so why was he ever turned in and why were charges filed?

This last year, charges were again filed before Jeramiah missed 20 days, I believe "in anticipation" he would miss the required amount of days necessary to substantiate the charges. That year, Jeramiah missed a week of school due to Strep A infection, which was first thought to be a West Nile infection. He was sent home to recuperate, then the second Strep test came back positive and he could not go to school until he had been on antibiotics for a certain amount of time.

Also that spring, my mother, Jeramiah’s grandmother, passed away. We took a week off of school to spend with her, to be with her as she passed. Once again, charges had already been filed before he had missed 20 days, and due to this I did not even attend my own mother’s funeral.  Terrified they would take my child, they stole my final goodbye.

Many of the absences reported to the county attorney were for just one class or a partial class. When I reviewed the attendance records, I found that in those instances he was in school, just in another place with the teacher’s permission. The incompetence of those keeping record of attendance is unbelievable and the result is that innocent children end up in court.  After dragging the case out for months and getting another attorney, the unfounded charges were once again dropped.

This invasive law and Lancaster County’s “truancy program" take away a parent’s natural right to decide what is best for their child.  I wanted to be there when my mother was buried, but fear of losing my child into the system kept me from taking him out of school any longer.

Personally, I feel that because I would not "comply" with what I believe is a cash for kids program, initiated at Park Middle School, I then became a target for harassment. My parenting choices were being questioned at every turn.  He was bullied, he was sick, and his grandmother died.  I made the right decisions for him every step of the way, like good parents do.  My kid doesn’t need a psychologist or a social worker and I don’t need a parenting class.  I’m a good parent and my child doesn’t have mental health issues, so stop trying to pull us into the “system.”

Now that the school district has figured out they’re not going to get me for "truancy," they have begun digging into other areas of my life.  This is all part of the bigger picture created by this law, which gives more authority over our children to strangers such as school employees and county attorneys, than to their own parents who love them and know them best.

Lincoln Public Schools and Lancaster County are misusing this law to abuse innocent families and sick children.  This has been very damaging and detrimental to my health.  We have been hurt badly by this law, and we believe it needs to be changed.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

October 29th Press Conference a Success

Yesterday's press conference was certainly a success. All of the Omaha television stations were represented, as well as the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln's Channel 8, the Daily Record, and U.N.O.'s KVNO Radio.

The members of the press were attentive and responsive as each family told their story. After the speakers concluded, there were many questions from the press. They were interested, and that was apparent.

Thank you to the brave people who told their stories publicly: Michelle Garrity, Antony Ward, Vaughn Crowell, and Gina Miller. Much thanks to Willie Hamilton of Black Men United for sharing his concerns about this law's effect on the African-American community. Representatives of The Heartland Workers Center could not attend, but they sent a statement expressing their concerns about the disproportionate effect the law is having on the Latino community.

And last but certainly not least, Mary Ann Borgeson, chair of the Douglas County Board. Mary Ann called this press conference and relayed families' concerns beautifully. Mary Ann speaks from her heart about the law's effects on the people of Nebraska, while Brad Ashford talks about the law's effects on numbers. Our children are not numbers or statistics or test scores or dollar signs, they are our precious children. Thank you, Mary Ann, for always remembering that, and for being a tireless champion for them. They are why we fight.

Comments to the Press by Brenda Vosik, Director of the NFF



Brenda Vosik's Comments to the Press
October 29, 2013

My name is Brenda Vosik and I am the director of the Nebraska Family Forum.    The NFF was founded about 2 ½ years ago to address the harmful effects of LB 800, the “excessive absenteeism” law passed by our legislature in 2010.  From its humble beginnings of two concerned moms, our group has grown to over 600 members and it continues to grow every week, as more and more Nebraska families are harmed by this law.

A little background on the law:  During the 2010 legislative session, Sen. Brad Ashford declared that Nebraska had a truancy crisis.  In the packet which will be given to you by Commissioner Borgeson at the conclusion of this press conference, you will find attendance statistics for the last 15 years, provided by our State Board of Education.  You will see that since 1998, daily average attendance rates have been stable in our state, ranging from 94.6% to 95.55%, less than one percentage point difference throughout those 15 years.  Pay particular attention to the school year 2009-2010, when the average daily attendance rate was 94.7%, not the highest rate in the 15 years shown, nor the lowest.

However, that was the year that Sen. Ashford suddenly and inexplicably declared that Nebraska had a “truancy crisis” and was able to pass the law making 20 days of absence, for any reason, a crime.  Not only was there never a truancy crisis – or even an attendance crisis – this law that was presented and passed under the guise of preventing truancy does not even contain the word “truancy” in its verbiage – only excessive absenteeism.  Even worse, the effect the law is having on children who are really skipping school is not even being measured.  The data that is being collected makes no distinction between kids who are skipping school and kids who are absent with legitimate reason; only absences are being measured but those numbers are presented as truancy data.  Those are certainly the numbers that will be given to you, the press, in defense of this law.  I urge you to look at them carefully and see them for what they are—and what they aren’t.  You see, proponents of the law play fast and loose with the word “truancy,” using it interchangeably with the word “absenteeism,” but we all know those are two very different things.  So here we are, three years and millions of dollars later, thousands of children dragged into the juvenile justice system, and we have no idea if the kids who truly need help are being helped.

What we do know is that this law has cast a wide net over all Nebraska families and transferred day-to-day authority over our children, from parents to law enforcement.  What we do know is that many, many families have been harmed, and we have been collecting their stories for almost three years.  Today, several of those families are sitting here behind me, prepared to speak to you.  Other families from across the state could not be here today, and some of their stories are included in your packet.  I also encourage you to look at our blog, NebraskaFamilyForum.org.  There you will read about children with meningitis, mono, asthma, autism and other physical and mental illnesses being treated like criminals and forced to accept diversion under threat of being taken from their parents.  You will read about a 12-year-old child with doctors’ notes for every day missed being served a summons by the sheriff, accusing him of being a danger to the morals of himself and others.  You will read of sick children being Mirandized like common criminals, you will read about a sick little girl crying to her mother, “What did I do wrong?”  Even after last year’s compromise amendment, the stories continue.  Thousands of innocent children are still being referred to law enforcement and are still being caught up in the juvenile justice system statewide, because the amended law allows it.

Over the past three years, Douglas County and the Learning Community have created an “attendance industry” consisting of attendance officers, Student Personnel Assistants, county attorneys, social workers, and other enforcers of the absenteeism law.  It’s a booming business, folks.  More than $1,000,000, and counting, has been funneled away from educating our kids to punishing our kids.  This money could have been used to provide services to families who really have at risk kids, who are perhaps struggling with actual truancy issues, or other circumstances that sometimes make it difficult for good parents to get their children to school.

The NFF has been immersed in this issue for more than two years, and we believe this law is fatally flawed.  We cannot “amend” our way out of this mess.  The law needs to be repealed and we need to start over with a new law that is really about truancy, that is really about helping and motivating kids to stay in school, without the constant threat of being taken away from their parents. 

Today we are advocating for four things:
1)      REPEAL of the current law;
2)      REPLACEMENT with a law that addresses real truancy, defined as being absent without the permission or knowledge of your parent;
3)      REMOVING law enforcement from the equation;
4)      and RESTORING a cooperative relationship between schools, parents and students—the three parties who should be dealing with attendance issues.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Press Conference October 29 at 4:30 PM



News Conference
For immediate release: Oct. 28, 2013 
Contact: Phil Rooney, 402-444-6427
How the Excessive Absenteeism Law Affects our Nebraska Families

Douglas County Commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson, Nebraska Family Forum Director Brenda Vosik, and Nebraska Families invite you to join them on Tuesday, October 29, 2013, 4:30 p.m. in the south side of the Farnam level lunchroom at the Omaha-Douglas Civic Center at 1819 Farnam Street for a news conference to learn how Nebraska’s LB933- Excessive Absenteeism Law - is damaging our Nebraska families.
In the 2009-2010 school year, before the law took effect that made 20 days of absence from school a crime, the number of children prosecuted by the Douglas County Attorney for truancy was 239.  Those were kids who were truant according to the real definition, absent without their parents’ permission. 
In the 2010-2011 school year, after the new law was passed, the number of referrals jumped from 239 to 3,100, a 1,180% increase.  Those 3,100 kids were sorted out by deputy county attorneys and they were questioned publicly, pressured to hand over personal medical records, assigned to monitoring, put on diversion for being ill, and offered “voluntary” services under threat of having charges filed and being removed from their home. At the end of that first year after the law was passed 244 were filed on for actual truancy. 239 truant kids before the law, 244 after.
Commissioner Mary Ann Borgeson said:  “I have listened to the horrendous stories of our Nebraska Families and the negative unintended consequences of LB 933.  It is time to act, to REPEAL this law, and REPLACE it with a definition of truancy.”
           
Read more on Nebraska Families and their experiences at http://www.nebraskafamilyforum.org

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Collateral Damage of LB800

The following post was written by NFF member Vaughn Crowell.  Vaughn and his wife were two of the first casualties of Nebraska's assault on families when they stood up for their child's legal rights and were jailed by Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich during a "truancy" hearing for their non-truant child.  During the six hours they were held behind bars, a mysterious call was made to the child abuse hotline, a false and misleading affidavit was filed by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, and Deputy County Attorney Jordan Boler used the false affidavit to move the Court for immediate custody of the Crowells' child.  The child was removed from the home by an armed sheriff, in what was surely a record response time by Nebraska's Child Protective Services workers.  The next morning, a different juvenile court judge reversed everything done the day before and returned the child to the home.  No charges were ever filed against the Crowells.   In this post, Vaughn reflects on the thousands of families, like his, who have become collateral damage in Nebraska's attack on children and parents, in the name of "education."
                                                           The Collateral Damage of LB800
 
In speaking with a parent today about the frustration of having received a “10 day notice” regarding their child’s absences from school, it reminded me of the collateral damage being inflicted by LB800. They have a child that suffers from a chronic illness. Their insurance will cover surgical intervention with five documented episodes of inflammation in a 15 month period. For the past several years the periods of inflammation have been far enough apart that the fifth episode is always just outside of 15 months. Insurance denied the family doctor's recommendation for surgery to resolve the matter and reduce the number of sick days. I suggested she ask the insurance company to refer her case to the medical director for reconsideration. I, of course, also gave her my well memorized speech on the evils of LB800, warned her of the inevitable looming referral to the County Attorney and that she and her family, friends and neighbors should contact their Senator to support repealing LB800. 
Almost as an afterthought, she mentioned that she and her husband generally take their children with them to an annual conference that takes the children out of school for three or four days. After receiving the notice, they decided against taking them this year.
The collateral damage here is fear.  Fear of having to explain your decisions to a Deputy County Attorney, fear of NDHHS concocting an excuse to invade your home and remove your child claiming the absurdity of “educational neglect” (to which I give witness is a very real invasion), a fear so great and coercive that we as parents literally deny our children the opportunity and benefit of life’s experiences.
How much have we already given up over the past three years? How many opportunities for spontaneous enlightenment have our children missed because of the collateral damage of LB800? 
I have always believed that brilliance of heart and character is equal on all levels to brilliance of cognition. Where will our next artists, actors, musicians, story tellers and writers come from when we deny our children the experience of finding self-worth and the absolute joy of discovering a natural talent clear and free of any outside influence, an essence of self, an understanding of who they are rather than the regurgitation of a standardized education?
If we continue to send our children to the jailer, we will need to build more jails because jailers do what jailers do.
I pity those that believe there is nothing to be learned outside of the classroom. 
Please support the repeal of LB800. Contact your state senator.
Vaughn Crowell

“I have never let my schooling interfere with my education” – Mark Twain
 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Nebraska's "Excessive Absenteeism" Law Targets Special Needs Children



The following story was written by a Lincoln, Nebraska couple whose 10-year-old autistic daughter was targeted by Lincoln Public Schools, the Lancaster County Attorney's Office, and Child Protective Services under the guise of preventing "excessive absenteeism."  In order to protect their daughter, and because of the ongoing threat from CPS, the family wishes to remain anonymous at this time.

During the 2012-13 school year, our child missed over 20 days of school.  This was a combination of partial and full days.  Because she missed over 20 days, we were served by the county sheriff to appear in court.  The count against us stated that we lack proper parental care and failed to ensure our child’s regular and timely attendance at school.  It also stated these absences from school are negatively affecting our child’s educational progress. 

We received our summons in June, 2013.  That week, we attempted several times to reach the county attorney assigned to our case, Daniel J. Zieg, to explain our situation.  He did not return any of our phone calls, so we emailed him.  Here is a transcription of our email from June 20, 2013:

I am requesting that you dismiss (our case number). This is a result of our (child) missing more than 20 days of school during the previous school year. All of her absences were excused absences for either medical reasons or because our family was out of town. We informed the school prior to the school year and during the school year about the dates our family was going to be out of town. All homework and projects were completed on time. (Our child) is on the autism spectrum, and many of the absences were because of emotional or medical reason related to her autism. Some of her absences were partial days and some were full days. Reasons include doctor appointments, therapy and autism symptoms (high anxiety, migraines, vomiting, etc.). (Our child) also missed about a week of school because one of the paras (who has now been dismissed from the school) caused (our child) to have great stress and anxiety. As a result, she self-inflicted herself in her throat and had to receive medical attention. (Our child) continually gets good grades and no teachers have complaints about her. We are active parents in our kids’ education and well being.  We can provide documentation related to the family trips, medical appointments, autism diagnosis, etc.  We appreciate your understanding.

Mr. Zieg responded to our email the next day.  This is his response:

At this point I am not willing to dismiss.  I am concerned that (your child) is being pulled from school to go on family trips.  Family trips are not an excused absence.  A family needs to exercise discretion in pulling a child from their mandatory school program to go on a trip, especially when the child is autistic as they need a structured daily program.  The information I have from the school indicates they informed you that another family trip would put you over 20 days of absence however you still chose to take the trip.

This was our email response:

I appreciate the response.  I forgot to clarify that the times we were out of town were related to my work, and we did not have control of the dates. This was unique this last school year. It had not occurred prior to this year, and we don't see that happening again in the future. Prior to the school year, the school said that it would be OK to take (our child) on the business trips so we planned accordingly. It is difficult finding someone to watch her with her autism. She is more comfortable being with us.

We did not hear another word or get another response from the county attorney.

The next day, a case worker with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services (Child Protective Services) came to our house.  We were not home, but he left his business card with a hand written note on the back of the card that read:  Could you please call me as soon as you can.  We called him, and he stated that he wanted to interview us and our child – separately!  We told him no and that we were going to retain an attorney.  The next day, he called our house again, insisting that he interview us and our child. Again, we told him no and that we were going to retain an attorney. 

A couple days later, I did retain a private attorney.  We appeared in court in July 2013.  Present in the court room were two case workers from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, an attorney from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, the county attorney handling our case, the judge, the court reporter and an employee of Legal Aid as Guardian ad Litem for the minor child.  That’s seven people paid by our tax dollars to appear in court for our case!

Before entering the courtroom, one of the case workers from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services made a comment to us that we shouldn’t even be there.  I asked then why were we there, but did not get a response.

Our attorney requested that the case be continued until October 2013.  All parties agreed and an October 16 court date was set.  For three months, we were under enormous stress because of the accusations of neglect against us.  Our attorney told us that he attempted to contact the county attorney numerous times but never received a response.  On the morning of our October 16 court appearance, the county attorney finally notified our attorney that our case was dismissed.  Back in June, our case was urgent enough that CPS was called, but suddenly our case is so unimportant that it was dismissed?  Why is that?  What was the county attorney trying to accomplish?  Was he trying to intimidate us into never keeping our daughter home from school again?

On October 22, a few days after our case was officially dismissed by the county attorney and the judge, we received another call from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services case worker asking to interview our child again – knowing full well our case had been dismissed.  We told him no.  We notified our attorney.  This infuriates us!  Why are we continuing to be harassed after our case was dismissed?

Here are some excerpts from a Nebraska Legislature Judiciary Committee hearing on February 13, 2012 regarding the truancy law. This was the hearing to discuss the amendment to LB800. Senator Brad Ashford, the Senator behind this law, stated that “It was never the intent of this committee that the 20-day review be some prosecutorial effort to bring unexcused students into one big group with excused absences and start throwing them into the juvenile system.”  During that same hearing, Alicia Henderson of the Lancaster County Attorney’s Office stated that their office is dismissing referrals that are excused for illness and travel with parents.  This is obviously a lie!

So the bottom line is we had to spend nearly $1000 for a private attorney for something we had worked out with the school, as well as endure months of fear and stress for no reason.  The school knows our family situation and our child’s special needs, yet they chose to turn our ten-year-old autistic daughter over to law enforcement.  Worse yet, the county attorney decided to file charges and someone even filed a CPS report, as if we are abusive parents because we chose to take our special needs child with us on a business trip!

We are not against education.  We have college degrees ourselves. We are against this ridiculous law and its complete infringement on parental rights!

How dare Lincoln Public Schools and a young county attorney (who appears to be fresh out of law school) presume to judge the decisions we make in the best interests of our own child!  How dare a county attorney tell us, the parents, that our daughter shouldn’t go on a trip with us because autistic children need a “structured daily program”!  He doesn’t know what our child needs, we do.  He is a prosecutor who has never met our child, we are her parents who have raised her and loved her and advocated for her needs her entire life.  They are threatening our life!

And think of all the tax dollars wasted on our case alone. These dollars could be better used to help our Nebraska kids, especially kids with special needs.

This law is wrong and it needs to be repealed.  I have a meeting scheduled with our state senator and we will be sharing our story and asking her to help get rid of this terrible law that has harmed our family and many others.

UPDATE: 

On October 26, we received certified mail from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.  The letter stated that the case against us was considered “unfounded.”  The report we  were named in was alleging Physical Neglect of our daughter.  Are you kidding me?  Physical Neglect because we took her on our business trips and because she missed school for medical reasons!  This is absurd!  The definition of Physical Neglect on the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services’ Web site is when a parent does not provide basic needs or a safe place to live. This is a complete lie!