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Ordered to Lie

February 13, 2011 permalink

Former social worker Tawnie Stewart quit when she was ordered to lie on the witness stand. In this article from a local Nebraska paper she reveals some of the tricks used by social workers to get parents to cooperate in the loss of their childrn.



Former HHS worker: 'This has to stop'

Tawnie Stewart was a caseworker for the state Child Protective Service but left the organization when, she claims, she was told to lie in court about one of her cases.

"That's when I quit," said Stewart, a caseworker for Health and Human Services from 1996-97. "I didn't like anything about it. I was supposed to be working for these mothers to help them get their children back, but I was being told to work against them. I worked with a case plan supervisor who wasn't familiar with cases, but would tell me what to put in it. But the last straw was when I was told I would have to lie on the stand."

Now Stewart is working with a mother who is locked in a battle with the Nebraska Health and Human Service Department to get her children back.

May Lynn Branson, a mother of two children ages 8 and 9, is locked in a dispute to determine if a foster mother in Broken Bow should get guardianship of Branson's children - a decision that could determine if Branson is allowed to see her children in the future.

Branson is supposed to have nightly telephone calls to her children, but phone records indicate the calls are completed only about six times per month. Branson said she is told by the foster mother that she has cell phone issues in her area, yet a check with the phone company indicates full coverage where the foster mom lives. The cell phone company states that no such issues should exist.

When the calls do go through, the foster mother listens on speakerphone. In one recorded conversation, Branson is heard to ask, "You have me on speakerphone again?" at which time the foster mother's voice rings out, "If you don't like, we can cut you off."

Child Protective Services came into Branson's life after a bruise was spotted on one of the children's legs at school. Investigators showed up at her doorstep and Branson, who has a mental disability, agreed to cooperate with requests to temporarily hand over her children.

Stewart said this is a standard practice.

"That's where they get you," said Stewart. "That's their tactics. They are told to tell parents like May Lynn that if they cooperate, things will go better, if not they will file criminal charges. Most people would be afraid at that point and the voluntary cooperation sounds easier, but in fact, it's better if you force them to pursue criminal actions. That way, they at least have to prove what they are saying. Otherwise, they can do what they want."

Workers trained to pressure parents, says whistleblower

Stewart said as part of her initial training, she was told, "Parents don't know their rights and you should take advantage of that by walking all over them," she said.

The Telegraph contacted the Health and Human Services Communications and Legislative Services Director Kathie Osterman for a response to Branson's case. Osterman was provided with these same details and after saying HHS would respond to what they could, did not meet a one-week deadline to provide a response.

Like Brandi Knutson's case (detailed in Saturday's story on the front page of the Telegraph), Branson was given a case plan to follow, but each time the goals of the case plan were met, the goals were changed, according to copies of the case plans. Branson has dealt with 10 different caseworkers over the last several months.

The children too have had a lack of stability, living with different foster families in different cities.

The final case plan written by Branson's current caseworker in December states, "Fair progress is being made to alleviate the causes of out-of-home placement."

Yet in the next paragraph, the caseworker recommends adoption.

Branson admits she needs to improve her living conditions. She said she is making progress with Stewart's help. She wants an opportunity to reunite with her daughters and fears a decision that could take them from her life until they turn 18.

Stewart has offered to become a guardian for the children and wants Branson to live with her and her husband. Branson's outcome will be determined by the court, but whether she has custody or not is the issue for Stewart, who said Branson certainly hasn't done anything to lose a relationship with her children.

"I've known these kids and May Lynn for a long time," said Stewart. "I have a relationship with all of them. She doesn't deserve to not have a relationship with her children. This has to stop. She hasn't done anything to deserve to have those ties to her children broken."

Source: North Platte Telegraph

Here is the earlier article mentioned in the story.

Mother calls out HHS for 'bullying tactics'

The Nebraska agency that oversees the state's foster care program has been depicted in legislative hearings as not working in the best interests of the children they serve.

Two North Platte mothers in unrelated Nebraska Health and Human Services cases say their experiences support this conclusion.

They have provided the Telegraph with documentation showing the challenges they have faced once the state took over control of their children.

In reports published today and Sunday, these women will share their stories.

Brandi Knutson admits the state had reason to initially step into her son's life. She is an admitted methamphetamine addict, but has been clean for more than three years. She hoped that her successful battle with addiction would lead to a reunification with her son. It has not.

Child Protective Services came into her life in September 2007 after reports were filed that people were coming and going at her residence at all hours of the night.

Investigators searched the home and found nothing. Knutson was not charged with a crime, but admitted to investigators that she had a problem. Her son was taken away in January 2008 and placed in the custody of Knutson's mother, Kris Snyder, who was unaware of her daughter's drug problem.

"I didn't know any of this was going on until that happened," said Snyder. "[The child] was placed with us, and we went through the process of becoming his foster parents, filing all the paperwork. But no paperwork was ever returned to us, so we just assumed that we were his foster parents and he was with us for the next six months."

Snyder, who already has legal guardianship over Knutson's daughter, took care of her grandson while Knutson began the process of following a plan dictated by Health and Human Services to regain custody of her son. The child's natural father was no longer living with Knutson.

According to the initial HHS paperwork, the father was listed as "not an option" for placement when the child was initially taken from the home and placed with Snyder.

He was on probation for DUI at the time and has a recorded history of domestic violence with arrests occurring in 2003 and 2007 and has at least two protection orders filed against him from previous girlfriends, according to court records.

Snyder said she was told she could likely have the child for up to two years, which the family thought was adequate time for Knutson to do what was necessary to get her son back.

By June 2008, Knutson was completing her in-patient treatment, as her case plan required, with an understanding that she would be able to get her son back.

"I had to do this for myself and my son," said Knutson.

Case spirals out of control

On her last day of treatment, Knutson attempted to call her caseworker several times with no returns. She eventually set up a scheduled visit with her son through a family support worker.

The visit went well, but the following day the child left for a scheduled two-week summer visit with his father, but never returned home. The child, as it turned out, had been placed into the father's custody with no notification to Knutson or Snyder. In July, a team meeting took place with Knutson, Snyder and the Health and Human Services caseworker, Melissa Betts, and Melissa Smith, the Health and Human Services supervisor on the case.

"I asked why they took [the child] out of our home after we were basically told we were the foster parents," said Snyder. "I obviously voiced my concerns about [the father] and his girlfriend, who my grandson doesn't know."

Snyder said she also voiced her concerns about the father's domestic violence history and said her daughter had done everything the state had asked of her.

"That's when Melissa Smith said, 'You are a negative person,' and slapped supervised visits on me on the spot," said Snyder, who noted that to this day she has never been told or provided information citing the reason for the supervised visits.

Knutson was devastated.

"I had worked so hard at getting at where I needed to be and this news was a slap in the face once again by HHS," said Knutson. "I did everything they had asked of me and this is the way they treat me and my mother."

The Telegraph contacted Health and Human Services Communication and Legislative Services Director Kathie Osterman on Feb. 4 with the details of Knutson's case, asking for a response by Feb. 9. Osterman said Health and Human Services would look into the case and provide what information they could.

To date, Health and Human Services has not responded.

An impossible obstacle

Knutson was granted supervised visits as well, but was told she would have to drive to Columbus, where the father lives, to conduct the visits. Knutson and Snyder complied with this order from July 2008 through May 2010, paying the expenses to drive 8 hours round trip, as well as the $150 fee to pay for the person doing the supervising.

Knutson continued her treatment and completed a 12-step program. She said she remains drug-free. Last October, as Knutson and Snyder prepared to fight a legal battle, the state cut off all visitation, according to Snyder. She said the Health and Human Services caseworker said the agency would continue that policy until her daughter signed the custody papers over to the child's father.

Last month, Knutson complied and signed custody over to the father. All restrictions and supervised visits were lifted, leaving Snyder to question the motives.

"If there was a reason for the supervised visits and then pulling any visitation, why would they agree to lift all of that once the custody papers were signed?" Snyder asked. "We were bullied and lied to every step of the way and it didn't matter what Brandi did to meet their goals because they changed them every time she met them."

Knutson said she ultimately signed away custody for the benefit of her son.

"He had gone through enough," she said through her tears. "He was being prevented from seeing my family and my family was being prevented from seeing him. He was the one suffering and at least now we all get to see him. I just don't want anyone else's child or family to have to go through what we did."

Editor's note: See Sunday's edition of the Telegraph to see how another mother's fight with HHS shows a similar pattern and hear from a former HHS worker who blows the whistle on HHS tactics.

Source: North Platte Telegraph