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Family Purgatory

February 6, 2010 permalink

The Kelley family in Nebraska lost three children to child protection in 2001. Though it quickly became apparent that there was nothing wrong with the parents, the child protectors stalled for eight years before restoring the family. There is nothing unusual about this case, it could be a model for typical CPS intervention in a family. The only thing different is that the press is willing to report the story.



Family divided 9 years takes on the system

By Martha Stoddard, Published: Friday, February 5, 2010 4:13 AM CST, World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN - Lincoln police found Anthony and Arva Kelley's preschooler and two toddlers home alone one February night.

The house was "disorderly," with standing water in the bathtub, fecal matter on one bedroom wall and soiled diapers on the floor, an affidavit stated.

When no adults had returned within an hour, police took the children into state custody.

State officials were to keep the three children for the next nine years, even though the Kelleys eventually had four more children, none of whom was ever removed from the home or judged to be at risk.

And even though repeated reports said the three oldest children would be safe with their parents.

And even after top child welfare officials apologized to the parents because the case had gone on so long.

Now all seven Kelleys are suing the state. The parents and children seek damages, alleging that they were denied their constitutional right to family integrity.

The suit, which is expected to be filed today in Douglas County District Court, also alleges violations of the family's due process and equal protection rights.

The right to family integrity claim, more common in other states, has been made in only two other Nebraska cases, said Amy Geren of Omaha, the Kelleys' attorney.

The claim's success depends on showing that the only thing standing in the way of family reunification was the state's ineptness, Geren said.

"We're talking about a decade of serious interference with their fundamental rights," said Amy Williams, a law clerk in Geren's firm. "That family will never recover."

The list of defendants includes the State of Nebraska, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, several current and former HHS employees and the children's former guardian ad litem.

Geren and Williams said they took the case because they were concerned about what they said were systemic problems with Nebraska's child welfare system.

"We're both really tired of seeing how the department (HHS) screws up families," Geren said. "You can only turn your back on that so many times and say, 'It's just that case.'"

The suit seeks general and specific damages, but the Kelleys say money is not their objective.

"It's about doing the right thing, folks," Arva Kelley said in an interview Thursday. "You can't just play with people's lives."

The Kelley's story began Feb. 12, 2000, when Lincoln police responded to a "check welfare" call at the Kelley home, according to the complaint and to other court documents.

Police arrived at 11 p.m. An hour later, they removed the children, then ages 4, 2 and 1.

The children remained state wards until last April, when the Lancaster County Juvenile Court returned custody to the Kelleys.

During the intervening years, according to court documents:

The court ordered the parents to meet requirements to get the three children back, but the requirements kept changing.

The case goals shifted, from family reunification, to guardianship by the foster parents, to termination of parental rights, to guardianship by the four sets of grandparents.

The family dealt with 11 caseworkers and four HHS supervisors.

Anthony Kelley was repeatedly ordered to undergo psychological evaluations.

He also was required to get substance abuse treatment, even though no allegations of alcohol use or abuse were included in the initial allegations against him.

He ran into months of waiting lists and Medicaid funding problems when he tried to get into local outpatient treatment programs.

He went to a private therapist only to have the court say he was in the wrong type of treatment. He had to start over.

He finally completed an outpatient substance abuse program with Lutheran Family Services in July 2002. But when he was unable to pay his bill, the agency withheld his documentation and the court refused to credit him with completing the program.

He tried to go through inpatient treatment, but two programs said it was not warranted for his level of alcohol use.

In 2005, Anthony Kelley finally obtained the certificate of completion for the outpatient program. But that wasn't enough for HHS or the court, which ordered still more evaluations.

The children had regular visits with the parents, including overnight visits during some periods.

In 2001, the court, on a recommendation by HHS, stopped overnight visits for Anthony Kelley because the couple had not completed weekly "visitation logs." The visits later were resumed.

In 2002, HHS staff raised concerns about the couple not having driver's licenses or a car large enough for all their children.

Over the years, reports from various parties said the children would be safe with their parents.

The children's foster parent said in May 2000 that the children belonged with their parents.

In May 2005, an HHS case worker reported that the "issues that led to the initial removal ... have been alleviated."

In 2006 - six years after the children were removed - the Foster Care Review Board recommended reunification, saying:

"Case manager turnover, changes in visitation schedules and in the permanency objective being sought appear to have been more detrimental to the children than if reunification had occurred at some point in the past."

The review board also noted that while the parents had not been consistent in participating in services, "progress has been made and no significant safety concerns have ever been reported."

Nearly a year earlier, according to the lawsuit, then-HHS administrator Nancy Montanez told the Kelleys that their children should be at home but that the department could not move them for legal reasons.

At a meeting in July 2005, then-HHS administrators Todd Reckling and Chris Peterson met with the Kelleys and apologized that the case was taking so long.

But in May 2006, according to the lawsuit, HHS staff told the Kelleys that they would lose custody of all their children if they did not agree to the grandparents becoming guardians of the three oldest.

The Kelleys eventually hired a new attorney, and the children were placed back in the home in November 2008. By then, the preschooler was 13 years old and her two brothers - toddlers when removed - were 11 and 9.

State involvement ended last April.

James Holt of Omaha, a therapist who worked with the family, said in an interview that the Kelley parents and children suffered psychologically because of the separation. One of the children was hospitalized in 2006 for severe emotional distress, according to the lawsuit.

"The children definitely have feelings of abandonment," Holt said. "The system divided and conquered."

The Kelleys now live in South Carolina, near both sets of grandparents.

Anthony Kelley said the youngsters are doing well, for the most part.

"Basically, we're still trying to catch up for lost time, though some things you can't catch up on," he said. "We're just blessed to have them."

Source: North Platte Telegraph