OMAHA -- A Douglas County Juvenile Court judge on Thursday allowed a dad stationed with the Army in Colorado to become a participant in his daughter's foster care case.
But while acknowledging the father appeared to be a fit parent and that no home study would be required, Judge Christopher Kelly delayed any chance of Sgt. David Sanders getting temporary custody of his 13-year-old daughter for 30 to 45 days.
At that time, the judge said, he will hear evidence about the Omaha mother's situation. He said he had been told she was cooperating and getting counseling, but he had no evidence of that.
Leslie Christensen, Sanders' attorney, said the father should not have to wait 30 to 45 days -- if that's what the judge's order indicates -- for his constitutional rights to take effect.
Sanders' attempts to get temporary custody of his daughter have been stymied since she was taken from her mother's home in August, despite federal and state policies that give placement preference in such cases to fit, noncustodial parents.
The girl first was placed with an aunt, but soon after she became a state ward and was placed with a friend's family.
On Thursday, the girl told the judge she wanted to stay in Omaha and to be with her mother, Shannon Peebles. But she also has told Department of Health and Human Services workers she loves her dad, spends two months with him each summer and has a good relationship with him.
She was taken from her mother because there was evidence Peebles had an alcohol addiction and the girl frequently was unsupervised, sometimes spending all night at home alone.
Peebles has a court hearing Oct. 27 for violating probation she got on an April DUI conviction.
Since school started, Sanders said, he has gotten weekly emails from his daughter's school about missing assignments, some as recently as last week.
In resisting his motion to become a participant in the case, Peebles said placing the girl with him would result in taking her out of her school and away from friends and family.
And, Peebles' attorney, Deborah Cunningham said, she has gotten full-time work with daytime hours.
"There is no condition that the court could order for the child or the mother with which the mother would not comply," a court document says.
Christensen argued there is no reason Sanders should be denied immediate custody of his daughter -- even if it is in another state.
"The system is just broken," she said.
She said she was told Thursday by an HHS representative that the department recommends placement with Sanders.
And, Christensen said, there is case law with near exact circumstances in which the Nebraska Court of Appeals found in favor of placing a child with a fit, noncustodial parent while the case moved through juvenile court.
"We cannot help but ask what better and more straightforward method of preserving families could there be … than placement of the children with a fit and willing parent, even if that parent had previously been a noncustodial parent in a divorce," the court said in the referenced case.
Sanders was frustrated. While he is spending thousands of dollars on attorney's fees and redirecting child support payments to the state, he said, the state is helping Peebles rehabilitate and doing nothing for him.
He said a letter from Gov. Dave Heineman indicated that HHS has requested an expedited process through the Interstate Compact for Placement of Children so his daughter can be with him in Colorado. But even that is being delayed because necessary records have not been forwarded to Colorado, he said.
HHS spokeswoman Kathie Osterman said the forms were sent Sept. 29 but returned Oct. 5 because of incomplete information. The case is so new, she said, that all the records requested were not yet available.