Thursday, October 23, 2008

Nebraska: Here comes the judge (to make everything worse)

    If my previous posts concerning Nebraska's "safe haven" debacle have left the impression that I think Nebraska's child welfare agency hasn't done anything right, that's not quite the case. The agency actually made one relatively good decision – and a clueless judge promptly stepped in to try to screw it up.

    It involves one of the saddest of the safe haven cases, the case of the Staton family. The family always had had a difficult time making ends meet – indeed, at one point the children had been taken solely because of the family's poverty. When the children's mother died, their father became so desperate that he resorted to the safe haven law, leaving his nine children at a hospital. Fortunately, the children's extended family rushed in to help (indeed, they say they wish the father had thought to turn to them first).

    It's the Nebraska child welfare agency that should have rushed in to help the father, providing him with both all the help and all the reassurance he needed to raise his family. But at least they did the next best thing – they took the relatives up on their offer and placed the children in kinship care. One relative took two of the children another, a great aunt, in an amazing act of generosity, immediately opened her home to the other seven.

    But that wasn't enough for one Elizabeth Crnkovich, the judge hearing the case. Instead of praising the great aunt to the skies and thanking her for her extraordinary compassion, Judge Crnkovich complained that, before she took in all those children, she didn't buy them each their own bed. Instead, the children had to share beds and sleep on air mattresses. The judge also was upset that, with everything else she had to do to accommodate seven children – including looking for a larger house to live in - the aunt had not immediately arranged school enrollment.

    So, after everything else these children have endured, including the death of their mother and the break-up of their family, the judge ordered them uprooted again and placed with strangers. Fortunately, the child welfare agency appealed and that stayed the judge's ruling. But that still leaves one crucial question unanswered:

Don't juvenile court judges in Nebraska get any training?

    The answer would seem to be no, since any such training almost certainly would include this fundamental point:

An air mattress in the home of a loving relative is better for a child than a bed in the home of a total stranger.

    Is that really so hard to grasp?

The lawyer for the children themselves understood perfectly. He got that the placement was right. He was the one who raised the issue of living conditions, but only in an effort to get the judge to order the child welfare agency to provide more help to the aunt. (He must feel awful about bringing the problems to the attention of a judge whose response would be so callous and so clueless.)

But wait, it gets worse.

In arguing that every air mattress should have been purchased and every detail attended to before the children were placed with their aunt, the judge said: "I don't know what the rush was."

    Right. What's the rush? Let 'em rot in separate homes with strangers, or a hospital ward, or a "shelter" or wherever it was these children would have wound up had it not been for the generosity of their relatives.

    No matter how much the child welfare community disagrees on everything else, everyone – everyone – gets that when children are torn from their family there should indeed be a rush to get them into a placement that is as close to their own family as possible, as soon as possible – and the younger the child, the greater the need to "rush." Children don't experience time the way adults do. Every time the system dawdles, it magnifies their suffering. And while people in child welfare systems often fail to act on this knowledge, at least they possess this knowledge.

    Even the head of Nebraska's child welfare agency, Todd Landry, got it.

    But not only is Judge Crnkovich apparently unaware of the impact of delay on children, there's also a question of whether she has a vindictive streak.

    At a subsequent hearing, the father asked to visit his children. The judge denied the motion – on grounds that, because her earlier order was being appealed, she couldn't rule on the entirely-unrelated request for visitation. That sounds an awful lot like taking a swing at the child welfare agency for daring to appeal her earlier ruling – and not caring that the blow landed, once again, on the Staton children.