Safe haven

The stories came one after another - from parents with children slammed by behavioral and mental health crises.

From local and national experts trying to help the families.

From politicians who watched the results of a safe haven law that brought family after family to Nebraska hospitals to surrender their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews - 36 in all before the law was altered to apply only to newborns.

But one of the loudest statements at a Saturday public forum in Omaha came from a Lincoln safe haven couple silenced by a Lancaster County judge's gag order to stop them from talking further about their experience last year with their son. The order was a response to telling their story in a Wall Street Journal article that ran Nov. 22.

"Our voices are the only voices our children have," said Melanie Williams-Smotherman, president of the Family Advocacy Movement group that sponsored the forum. "This is an affront to all of us."

The FAM group honored Sue and Avery Quakenbush with the first Voice of Families Recognition, "for demonstrating courage, integrity and enduring spirit."

Williams-Smotherman then asked the participants to pause for a moment of silence, to think about how one family prevented from speaking affects all the families.

The forum was intended to expand the discussion started by the original safe haven law that allowed parents or guardians to relinquish custody of children up to the age of 18 without prosecution for abandonment. Before it was amended, the law exposed the problem in this state and others of the difficulties families have accessing mental and behavioral health services for children.

Until last fall, many parents said, they felt isolated and thought they were the only ones experiencing such difficulties.

The grassroots Family Advocacy Movement of support grew out of a meeting of parents arranged by Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill last fall.

The group is calling for reform of the mental health and child protection systems to be more transparent and accountable and to have independent oversight.

An Illinois mother told a story similar to ones Nebraska families have experienced. She had sought help for her adopted son, who had been abused and neglected as a young child, when he began exhibiting violent behavior as a result of posttraumatic stress syndrome.

Daniel Hoy was denied recommended residential treatment until the family was forced to relinquish custody. The state of Illinois then charged the parents with neglect and took the boy 90 minutes from home, where he was housed with gang members and sex offenders.

The current system, said Toni Hoy, weakens family bonds, traumatizes children and brings about expensive, unnecessary court costs.

Nick Juliano, Boys Town director of strategic initiatives, told the 85 people gathered at the University of Nebraska at Omaha student center - including state Sens. McGill, Annette Dubas and Tom White, and Nebraska Health and Human Services CEO Kerry Winterer and Child and Family Services Director Todd Reckling - that the state is on the cusp of being a national leader and model on the issue - with a lot of hard work and effort.

Next year, he said, 60 percent of children in Boys Town programs will be served in their homes.

Boys Town has joined with four other agencies in the eastern part of the state to provide service coordination for the foster care system as part of HHS child welfare reform.

Reform will be complicated and face challenges, Juliano said, and it will take up to two years to see initial positive outcomes. But parents having to relinquish their children to get care will not be part of the new system - "we hope," he said.

Winterer said the stories showed it was wrenching sometimes what families had to face with their children.

"You can't hear these stories and not identify with their frustrations," he said.

He said he did not take the criticisms of HHS and the system personally.

His disappointment was that HHS didn't have representation on the panel of speakers.

He will seek to talk to those involved about reform and how to respond to the concerns raised at the forum, he said.

"We have a mission to try to help people, to understand their problems, and to make the system better," he said.

Reach JoAnne Young at 473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.

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