State left girl's dad out of loop

By Todd Cooper

June 13, 2011 / omaha.com

The state knew where to find Micheal Eggleston to collect child support payments for his toddler daughter.

However, Nebraska Health and Human Services caseworkers were clueless when it came time to find him for real child support — that is, when they needed someone to raise the girl.

It took more than eight months to notify Eggleston that his daughter was in foster care and had been removed from her mother's home.

It took three years after that for a judge to formally award Eggleston custody of the child.

From September 2005 to May 2006, caseworkers didn't contact him, though his address was on the state's child support rolls.

In turn, the La Vista man filed a lawsuit against the state seeking compensation for the eight months he went without notice and for his subsequent three-year legal battle.

Now a Douglas County district judge presiding over Eggleston's lawsuit has declared two state laws unconstitutional because, the judge ruled, they don't expressly require HHS to notify noncustodial parents when a child is placed in foster care.

State officials have said they made a mistake in Eggleston's case and acknowledged that the agency has a policy mandating that it contact noncustodial parents.

Eggleston said he hopes the case leads to a change in the state's attitude toward parents who don't have custody of a child, especially fathers who find themselves on the outs.

“They made sure they had my money,” Eggleston said. “But anything more, they kept me out of the loop. Looking back on it, I'm still in total disbelief.”

Indeed, Eggleston's case nearly ground to a halt in the mire of the court system. His hard-to-believe story began with a tumultuous relationship with the girl's mother and culminated in the inseparable bond between father and daughter.

According to court records, judge's findings and interviews with Eggleston and his attorney:

Eggleston and the girl's mother lived together in what Eggleston described as a rocky relationship. Eventually, they broke up. Soon after, the woman told him she was pregnant.

“At first I thought it was that old pregnancy ploy,” Eggleston said. “I had a belief that it was somebody else's child.”

Soon, however, a paternity action was filed in Douglas County and DNA tests determined that Eggleston was the father.

He was ordered to pay child support. But, according to Eggleston, the girl's mother didn't want him around, and had “sworn up and down that I would never see'' the child.

A judge backed up Eggleston's version, noting that the woman gave him only a post office box address and that she sent him two letters that constituted “a complete rejection” of Eggleston's request to become a part of the child's life.

In the meantime, Eggleston married another woman and settled into a La Vista home. He began the process of adopting that woman's two sons.

Then he received an eye-opener. In April 2006, the Nebraska Foster Care Review Board sent Eggleston a letter notifying him of a plan to place his daughter, then 3 years old, with her grandmother on her mother's side.

“I was floored,” he said. He was even more floored when he found out what had gone on without his knowledge.

At the time, the state was in the final stage of turning over his daughter to his ex's mother.

Unknown to Eggleston, his former girlfriend had threatened suicide in September 2005, and there were reports that she had a previous suicide attempt in April of that year.

No one intervened after the purported April 2005 attempt — and Eggleston's daughter remained with her mother.

After the September 2005 suicide threats, the state intervened. Caseworkers removed the child from the mother's care and put her in foster care.

Within a week, the child's grandmother arrived to take over care of the girl. And caseworkers set a goal of reunification with the mother.

No one contacted Eggleston. Months passed. The child welfare case dragged through court.

Finally, Eggleston received that Foster Care Review Board letter in his mailbox in May 2006.

He immediately made phone calls and made sure he was at the Foster Care Review Board meeting.

He choked up at the sight of his daughter.

With the father now involved, the board put the brakes on the plan to place the child with her grandma. But it was just the beginning of Eggleston's battle.

Eggleston's attorney, Amy Sherman, said courts typically will take time to transition a child from one parent to another, especially if the child doesn't have a prior relationship with the second parent.

At first Eggleston was introduced to her as a friend. Within a few months, she found out he was her father.

More visits followed. So did counseling and therapy to help the girl's transition. And court dates.

Eggleston had to endure dozens of court hearings, though there was no evidence that he was an unfit parent.

Sherman, who has represented parents in several child custody cases, said it's important to ease a child through the placement process. However, she said, it should not take three years.

Part of the reason for the delay: Two different counties had court cases involving the girl.

Douglas County had the paternity case in which Eggleston was ordered to pay child support. Cass County had the juvenile court case pertaining to the girl's welfare.

That left Eggleston in limbo.

Sherman had to push state lawmakers to draft a law that expressly allowed the juvenile court to take over jurisdiction of a paternity action.

HHS had no comment Friday as to why it didn't track down Eggleston, or why the placement process took so long.

When news broke of Eggleston's plight in 2008, the department's then-director of Children and Family Services said state policy clearly required notification of noncustodial parents.

“We certainly made a mistake in this case — absolutely,” Todd Landry told a television reporter. “We've made improvements in our practice and are making sure that our staff are following our policy.”

Sherman and Eggleston both said they have heard from at least a dozen parents, mostly fathers, who have had to battle to get notice that their children were in need.

“It's complete carelessness,” Sherman said. “I've said, over and over again, all HHS would have had to do was walk across the hallway and check a computer screen to find this child's father.

“It's the first thing they should have done.”

Now, Sherman said, she will contact lawmakers to ensure that they make the necessary changes to the notification laws.

District Judge Joseph Troia ruled that those laws fell short, as did the state's actions in this case.

Quoting from a 2004 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling, Troia wrote: “What better and more straightforward method of preserving families could there be … than placement of the children with a fit and willing parent? When a known parent is capable of caring for a child, he is deprived of a constitutionally protected right (if) he is excluded from a proceeding involving his child.”

However, Troia stopped short of awarding Eggleston monetary damages, ruling that caseworkers have immunity from being sued.

Eggleston has racked up nearly $50,000 in expenses over the battle and said he hasn't been able to pay Sherman for her tireless work. “She's been my angel,” Eggleston said.

Eggleston said his daughter, now 8, is doing well in school and at home. She loves to read and ride horses. Eggleston has primary custody of the girl; she lives with her mother on weekends, holidays and summer breaks.

“I can't tell you how much I love her,” Eggleston said. “All the time and energy spent forging our relationship — it just makes you appreciate what you have. I wouldn't give her up for the world.”

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