Sunday, October 4, 2009

UPDATED OCTOBER 7: A family is gagged - pass it on!

Please see the update at the end of this post

LINCOLN, NEB: Yesterday, I had the honor of being one of the speakers at a public forum in Omaha organized by the Family Advocacy Movement, a grassroots group organized by families affected by Nebraska's "Safe Haven" debacle last year, and families with similar issues.

Such laws usually are passed to allow parents to abandon infants in safe places, no questions asked. But the Nebraska law had no age limit. So some desperate parents, usually parents who had struggled for years to find help for children with severe mental illness, only to be turned away over and over, invoked the law and "abandoned" older children.

What the law really did was put a public face on a widespread problem. Every year, thousands of families are forced to surrender their children to states - often admitting to phony neglect charges - because it's the only way to get mental health care for those children.

But the response from the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services was almost unspeakably cruel, ranging from sick jokes to snide comments about the parents supposedly wanting to "push the easy button." (For details, see these previous posts to this blog.)

That kind of family-bashing is no surprise here in Nebraska, which, year after year tears apart families at one of the highest rates in the nation.

Ultimately, the legislature amended the law to apply only to newborns. The former head of the child welfare agency, Todd Landry, smugly predicted that once that happened, "all these other questions [will] disappear."

For the past year, the Family Advocacy Movement has put the state on notice that that's not about to happen.

There were lots of speakers at the forum yesterday - but the most eloquent moment was a moment of silence. That moment was used to honor Sue and Avery Quakenbush, two Safe Haven parents who are no longer allowed even to tell their story. After their story appeared in the Wall Street Journal in November, 2008, Nebraska DHHS went to court to obtain a gag order against the Quakenbushes.

But even the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services can't censor a news story - especially one that's already been published.

So there is one thing all of us can do to support the Quakenbushes, the other safe haven families, other families in similar situations, and everyone else who's been bullied by a child welfare agency that cares a lot more about its own image than it does about about the young people it is supposed to serve: We can take that Wall Street Journal story and, electronically, pass it on. We can send it to everyone we know who might share our outrage at the gagging of a suffering family. We can make clear to Nebraska DHHS that trying to hide what they've done will only call more attention to the agency's failings.

Later this week, I'll send the story to the NCCPR Child Welfare News Exchange, NCCPR's e-mail list of more than 300 reporters around the country.

So here's that link to the Journal story again: Pass it on!

One footnote: The two top officials at Nebraska HHS attended the forum. The CEO of the agency (that's the title in Nebraska) mouthed the usual platitudes about wanting to listen and not taking it personally, etc. etc. But, as the Lincoln Journal Star reported, then he admitted that one thing bothered him: the fact that no one from his agency was among the speakers.

Yeah. It's frustrating being gagged, isn't it?

UPDATE, OCTOBER 7: The Lincoln Journal-Star reports that the Nebraska Court of Appeals will hear an appeal of the gag order on October 21.

According to the story, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services contends that the Quakenbushes are perfectly free to discuss their concerns – just as long as they don’t mention what their child actually is suffering from, what medicines he was given, and who treated him. In other words, the Quakenbushes can say whatever they want – as long as they provide no actual evidence to back up their claims.

In the story, DHHS also claims that their son objected to the disclosures in the original Wall Street Journal story. But we have no way of knowing if that’s true. We don’t know if he read the story, or, if not, what he was told about what it said. We don’t even know if he knows that his privacy was protected by withholding his last name, which is not Quakenbush.

But this much we do know: The head of the Nebraska child welfare agency at the time of the “safe haven” debacle, Todd Landry, wanted the whole issue to “disappear” – meaning the “safe haven” families and all the others simply would keep on suffering in silence. I suspect his successors share that goal.

The only thing that stands between them and their goal is the ability of families like the Quakenbushes, and their supporters, to tell the world what the State of Nebraska is doing to their children.