Army Sgt. David Sanders got the email from his daughter's friend in April while serving in Afghanistan.
The whereabouts of his 12-year-old daughter, who was living in Omaha with her mother -- his ex-wife -- was unknown, the friend said.
After a series of frantic calls to try to reach his ex-wife, he eventually located her in a hospital, where she was being treated for mental health and substance abuse issues. His daughter initially had been left at home, but later was picked up by an aunt.
That essentially was the start of what has become an ongoing struggle for the Army medic -- who has returned from his deployment and is now at Fort Carson, Colo. -- to gain custody of his daughter, who has now become a state ward in foster care.
Sanders' attempts to get at least temporary custody of his daughter have been stymied by court proceedings and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, he said, despite federal and state policies that give placement preference to fit, non-custodial parents.
Sanders said he has a good relationship with his daughter, who spends a couple of months each summer with him, her stepmother and several half-siblings.
After the April scare, the girl spent June and July in Colorado and Ohio with her father's family. She returned to her Omaha home Aug. 8.
But later that month, trouble started up again.
In a call to the child abuse and neglect hotline on Aug. 19, a school counselor informed HHS that the girl had reported that her mother -- who works several jobs as a cocktail waitress, bartender and bar manager -- had gone to work at 5 the night before and not returned by the time her daughter needed to get to school.
According to an HHS safety assessment document, the school resource officer couldn't locate the mom at any of her jobs, but did find her at home later that day.
As the story unfolded, HHS learned that the mother's house was cluttered and dirty and that the girl had missed 19 days of school last year and had missed two by Aug. 19 of the current school year.
She also needed a chicken pox vaccination before she could return to school, even though numerous notices had been sent to the mother that if the girl didn't get the shot, she would be excluded from school.
HHS workers learned a few days later from the girl that her mother left her alone at home about five nights a week, but usually got home in time to take her to school.
Then on Aug. 26, the girl turned up missing again. The mother, who appeared intoxicated when questioned by police, gave several locations for her daughter, which did not check out. Police finally located her at Linoma Beach, where her mother had sent her to camp with her ex-fiancé and his teenage son because the mother's power had been shut off.
The mother has been arrested twice for driving under the influence, although the first charge in 2004 was reduced to reckless driving. She is on probation for an April DUI and has an October hearing for violating that probation.
After Sanders learned about what was going on and that his ex-wife had agreed to let the girl live with an aunt -- an arrangement that ultimately did not work out -- he contacted an Omaha attorney and filed a motion in Douglas County District Court to modify his custody agreement.
He asked that the proceeding be expedited in the best interest of his daughter.
But the judge in that case has decided to wait until mid-October to hear Sanders' motion.
In the meantime, the state has taken custody of the girl, and she is in foster care, living with a friend's parents.
Sanders said the usually good student is having difficulties at school. He continues to receive notices from her school about missing assignments, and a progress report showed she was flunking two classes.
While the girl loves her father and likes spending time at his home, he said, she has told HHS workers she wants to remain in Omaha with her mother and friends.
Chatting on Facebook, the girl told her father that if a judge orders her to move to Colorado, she could refuse, and "the worst thing the judge could was send me to juvi."
It's not because she doesn't love him, she said, "but moms not gonna get better if im not here to help her through it."
How, she asked, can she be reunified with her mother if she is in another state?
Sanders responded he was going to do what was in her best interest in the long run.
Leslie Christensen, Sanders' attorney, said the department has recommended a slow transition, by leaving the girl in foster care, having therapy in Omaha, and phone therapy with her dad.
"She's got a dad. He's a fit and proper parent ... and they didn't allow the dad to protect his child," she said. "Why doesn't the dad have this kid immediately?"
Sanders has filed to intervene in the juvenile court case, Christensen said, which appears to be the only way he will have a voice. But it takes time to intervene.
"It's just wrong," she said. "She should be with him."
Sanders said he has put in requests with the Army for an assignment that could keep him from being deployed again at least until his daughter graduates. His latest deployment was his second; the first was in Iraq in 2007-08.
He also has applied for a compassionate reassignment in time of emergency, which could allow his family to move to Omaha, in spite of not having an Army base there.
Camas Diaz, HHS Children and Family Services administrator, said the department policy is to look at placement with a non-custodial parent as the first option, with placement as soon as the court approves.
In cases in which the parent is in another state, background checks and home studies usually can be done within 30 days.
Because the juvenile court is involved, those proceedings can take longer, especially if the custodial parent is resistant.
Diaz said the long-term best interests of the child are the guiding factor.