Editor's note: This Signature Story is part one of a two-part series on child welfare reform in Nebraska, titled "Child Welfare: Navigating a Fractured System," and produced by NET partner station KVNO. Part two looks at the future of reform, and how the state is re-prioritizing to get to families before they're in crisis. It also examines the inevitable player in the story: funding.
"Oh my gosh, Mr. Kittles are you in there?"
Photo by Robyn Wisch, KVNO News
The Theye Family: Joan Theye sits in the middle, flanked by Yevonne, 12, on her left, Leneada, 14, on her right, and Cassie, 10, in the middle. Click here to read the full story of the Theye family.
Joan Theye's youngest daughter Cassie dashes after Mr. Kittles, the family cat, as he sneaks behind a dresser. Theye is seated with her three daughters in a small bedroom in her Bennington home just outside of Omaha. She's trying to get a bit of privacy. Case workers are just a few feet away - which happens anytime she wants to see her kids.
"It's like you think you have this power about being a mom," Theye said. "Then when they tell you that you don't You're a mom, for goodness sake's. You have them in your stomach for 10 months. I mean, it is a full ten months. It's not even just nine months.
"It's strange how we don't have those rights."
The Theye family came to the attention of the state last year, because all three kids had missed weeks of school. And after going to court, the Department of Health and Human Services and KVC, a private agency contracted with the state, recommended the children be removed from the home. But instead of placing them in foster care, they placed them with their father. That's a very different response from a few years ago, when the family first came into the system: then, the state helped Theye maintain a protection order against the father, who's been convicted of domestic assault.
"From a parent's perspective, it probably does feel broken," said Vicki Maca, an administrator with DHHS. Maca is in charge of the state's efforts to reform the child welfare system.
Known as Families Matter, the reforms began in 2009 and included privatizing all case management to lead agencies. The goal: to reduce the number of children removed from their homes. Nebraska removes children at one of the highest rates in the nation, according to the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. But the reforms in the state have been problematic from the start.
"We basically transferred the dollars we were using to the lead agencies, and then we also upped the ante," Maca said. "(We) said you're going to use the same dollars we had, but you have to do better than we did."
"The assumption was that because they were private and had more flexibility, they would be able to do that," she said. "And I don't think all those assumptions were good assumptions."
Photo courtesy of the Nebraska Legislature
Sen. Kathy Campbell said the state initiated reforms without a plan to implement them.
State Sen. Kathy Campbell, chair of the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee, agreed.
"We believe that we went into this initiative in Nebraska without a strategic plan, without a good fiscal analysis, and certainly without an implementation or an evaluation system built into it," she said.
In December, Campbell's committee released a comprehensive report on what went wrong with reform and why it's been troubled for so long. It showed the complexities of the system and how families and children can often get lost in it - taken out of the home unnecessarily, or placed with multiple foster families.
Campbell said managing a family's case is too important to be outsourced to private agencies. A case manager has to guide the family through the system and represent them.
"All the research that we've done, and the states and communities we've looked at, where they have been successful, (have had) case managers who have a reasonable caseload," she said. "They can visit the children, they know the family, they can communicate to the judge what's happening to that family.
"It is pivotal."
In Joan Theye's situation, the family had multiple case managers, and she doesn't feel they've been on her side. Campbell and Maca agree another part of the problem is when the state tried to reform child welfare, they didn't ask the families in the system how to do it. Advocates say that may be due to the state judging parents in the system too hastily.
Photo by Robyn Wisch, KVNO News
Charles Gilmore and Latoria Cook pose for a quick family photo in their small, South Omaha apartment. Click here to read the full story of Cook and Gilmore.
Charles Gilmore has four children currently in foster care. He told his story at a gathering of several parents at the offices of Nebraska Family Support Network, a nonprofit that helps families navigate the system.
"I will break my back, bend over backwards to prevent any incidents, any harm," Gilmore said. "If I see my daughter falling, I will fall to break her fall. These are my actions, these are the things I'll do for my children to prevent harm to them."
Gilmore's children were taken into custody on charges of neglect. He and his wife Latoria Cook had numerous problems. Gilmore has a criminal record, the children had developmental and behavioral problems, and Cook is a young mom, who has struggled to manage their children's behaviors. She described the first time she asked the state for help with their eldest son, who has autism.
"I said, what do I do in the situation where my son's hanging out the window?" she said. "Cops been called to my house twice. I'm trying to do as much as I can on with own with a new baby, two operations, you know, four children all together, trying to do the best I can. I said it's just getting to the point I need help."
The couple's children have been separated and placed in multiple foster homes: two have been in eight homes, another in nine. And that's in less than two years. Cook and Gilmore feel the state is not working with them to get them back. Gilmore said while he believes the foster parents are doing their best, as their parent, he will always do more.
"Any time a child begs you, begs you not to leave them," Gilmore said, "begs you, can they come home with you, hanging on to your leg. My son literally grabbed my leg, would not let me go when I took him back to his foster mother's house to take him in. He would not let me go."
"That's the feeling of the child knowing what he wants, knowing where he wants to be," he added. "No matter how many miles you take them (away), they know home. They know mother, they know father."
Fighting back tears, Gilmore added, "I'm going to keep fighting for my children."
The Department of Health and Human Services and the private agencies working with these families could not respond with specifics about their cases. But Maca said DHHS wants to do the right thing for every child in the system.
"I am, and I know the staff with the Department of Children and Family Services are, very committed to these kids," she said, "and wanting to make sure that they are safe, and in good, long-term places, hopefully with family.
"And when they can't be, that their placement out of home is as short as possible, meeting their needs and getting them home safely as quickly as we possibly can."
Back at the Theye home, telling their story also was emotional.
"I think that's it or I'm going to start bawling. I feel like my whole body's just shaking," Theye said, as her daughter hugged her.
The girls tried to stay upbeat, but they clung to their mom. The eldest daughter, Leneada, 14, said she misses her home, her dog, and her mother.
Just knowing my mom's there," she said. "Having just this family here, just knowing that I have them. They're important to me and nothing else matters."
The youngest, Cassie, who's 10 and was chasing the cat earlier, seems to be struggling the most. Her sisters say she cries herself to sleep most nights.
"Because mom is the one that I love so much," she said.
"If I'm without her, it's just like the world is broken."
Latoria Cook and Charles Gilmore live in a small, cramped apartment in South Omaha. Two framed school certificates hang on the walls, next to a taped-up picture with bubbled lettering that spells "Dailon." Dailon is the couple's four-year-old son.
"He's a real smart kid," Gilmore said. Gilmore is seated in front of a computer, with a large, hardcover book beside him: "The Supreme Court of the United States." He checked it out from the library recently.
"If I have to read this whole book, I will," he said. "I'm going to learn."
Gilmore and Cook are fighting to get their children back. It's a battle that's kept them in court for three years. And they say it's kept them jumping through hoops, trying to reach goals laid out for them by the state, only to have the goal posts moved further away.
Their story begins with Latoria Cook's oldest son, Quintel, who's now seven. In April of 2009, when Quintel was five, Cook called the Department of Health and Human Services for help.
"I said, what do I do in the situation where my son's hanging out the window?" Cook said. "Cops have been called to my house twice. I'm trying to do the best I can on my own with a new baby, two operations, you know, four children all together, trying to do the best I can. I said, but it's just getting to the point I need help."
Cook said DHHS recommended Quintel be placed on medication, Risperdal, but she was resistant. She said the drug made him lose control of his "bathroom issues."
"I said, I do not like the damage this is doing to my son,'" Cook said. "This is what it's doing to the outside, what is it doing to the inside? He's five years old, he doesn't need to be on this. This is not the answer for him."
Cook said Quintel was ultimately diagnosed with autism. In April of 2009, court records show she placed him into state custody voluntarily, but Cook said she wasn't aware she was signing away parental rights.
Along with Quintel, who is Cook's child, the couple has three more children together. And after the state's intervention with Quintel in April, their home continued to be monitored.
Those observations, documented in court records later that year, paint a disorderly and unsafe picture. At different points, the children throw fits, banging their heads against doors, punching themselves until they bruise. And Cook doesn't intervene, according to the reports, at least not in time to prevent them from hurting themselves.
At the same time, the reports say, Gilmore was unable to provide a steady income to the household, and secure housing. Gilmore also has a criminal record, which includes burglary, prostitution solicitation, and possession of marijuana.
In September of 2009, the Department of Health and Human Services recommended to the court that all three children be removed from the home "as a matter of immediate and urgent necessity" for the children's protection.
Since then, the department and Nebraska Families Collaborative, a private agency contracted by the state to manage child welfare cases, have set goals for Cook and Gilmore to reach in order to get their children back: attend regular therapy, find a steady job and stable housing.
But the couple said they have done everything they can to achieve those goals, but it never seems to be enough. While they admit they've had a troubled past, and struggled in their home, they say they love their children, and the family should not be apart.
"They're split up so bad that when they're together, they're fighting," Gilmore said. "They don't understand anymore that you're supposed to love your siblings. That's not how a family's supposed to be, when they're raised in one household."
The couple said their oldest son, Quintel, is now in his second foster home. The second oldest, Aision, 5, has been in nine foster homes. Their two youngest, Dailon, 4, and Chariyona, 2, have been in eight.
And with multiple placements, they worry some of the children have missed doctor's appointments. The oldest, they say, is now suffering from epileptic seizures, which they believe could have been avoided. As he talks about it, Gilmore's eyes fill with tears, and his voice cracks.
"I know they care about my children," he said. But as their parent, "I will always do more."
A spokesperson for DHHS, Kathie Ostermann, said the agency is unable to respond with any specifics about child welfare cases. But Vicki Maca, who heads DHHS' child welfare reform effort said the department is committed to each child in the system to ensure they are safe.
And when they need to be placed out of the home, she said, the department does everything it can to make sure that time "is as short as possible, meeting their needs and getting them home safely as quickly as we possibly can."
Seated on the couch in the family's living room, Joan Theye sits between her two oldest daughters, with her youngest one at her feet. Leneada, 14, is cuddled up on her right, her arm around her mom's waist and her head resting on her shoulder. Yevonne, 12, sits curled up on her other side, squeezing in between her and the arm of the chair.
The three are so squeezed in, in fact, that at various times during our interview, Joan Theye's face is barely visible, her daughters are huddled so tightly to her. At another point in the interview, Leneada looks up at her mom from her spot on her shoulder, and gazes at her with a sweet smile. Theye stops mid-sentence and laughs, saying, "What are you doing?"
"I don't get to see you very often," Leneada answered, cuddling up even closer until the space between them disappears.
I visited Joan Theye in her new home in Bennington, Neb., during a regularly scheduled visit with her three daughters. The girls visit their mother for a few hours, four times a week, while court-appointed visitation workers observe from a few feet away.
The youngest girl, Cassie, 10, was seated, generally, at her mom's feet. But she would spring up every now and then to find toys, or chase the family's two cats. When it came time to take the family picture, Cassie flew away to the bathroom to fix her hair, and put on a bit of lip gloss for the camera.
The Theye family first came to the attention of the Department of Health and Human Services in December 2006, when they were living in Wahoo, Neb.
"That experience, what do you guys think? Compared to what (we're) going through now," Theye asked her kids.
"That was nothing." Leneada replied.
That experience began with a call to police. Leneada, who was nine at the time, was refusing to go to school, and her mother called for help. According to court reports prepared by DHHS and provided to KVNO News by Joan Theye, police arrived to take her to school and Leneada physically assaulted one of the officers. She was taken to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation, and soon after, was made a ward of the state.
Theye said she didn't like the way the police took Leneada away, but overall, her dealings with DHHS were helpful, and the experience was positive. "The people were just so nice," she said. "I saw it as a learning experience."
Leneada was never removed from the home. Joan Theye was given access to a family therapist, and attended classes at a crisis center in Fremont. The family was kept together, while a DHHS caseworker monitored their progress.
In the reports, the caseworker attributes Leneada's outburst to domestic violence in the home. Shortly before the incident, Leneada's father, Chad Theye, was charged, and found guilty, of domestic assault.
The caseworker at the time recommended Theye maintain a protection order against her husband, and not allow him to have any contact with her daughters if she suspects he has been drinking.
"She taught me so much," Theye said. "And I'll always remember the last thing she said to me was Joan, whatever you do, just promise me you won't take him back.'" But just a few years later, DHHS would once again get involved with the Theye family. This time, the state would recommend the children be removed from Theye's home, and placed with their father, the same person DHHS had recommended the children stay away from in 2007.
Theye said her two experiences with the system couldn't be further apart. This time, she said, she feels the state is working against her to keep her children out of her home.
"The difference between then and now is it feels like there's just a lot of trickery," she said.
At first, she said she blamed KVC, the private agency contracted by Nebraska to manage her case. But, "it's really not their fault," she said. "They're trying to do their job. But it's just the whole system, it's just not right."
The Theye children were brought into the system because they had missed weeks of school. Court records show the children missed between 21 and 40 days of school that year, and were not yet enrolled by late September. The records also say the children were near homelessness. But they make little mention of the father's history of domestic violence and alcohol abuse.
A spokesperson for DHHS, Kathie Ostermann, said the agency is unable to respond with any specifics about child welfare cases. But she said, generally, the agency is required to perform background checks for any relative placement. Those include checks with local law enforcement, state patrol and the sex offender registry. Ostermann also noted placement outside the home is a decision of the courts, not DHHS.
But, according to Joan Theye, that decision simply doesn't make sense. And she worries about the impact of the separation on the kids, especially the youngest, Cassie, 10.
According to her older sisters, Cassie cries herself to sleep most nights.
"Because mom is the one that I love so much," she said. "If I'm without her, it's just like the world is broken."