LINCOLN — Nebraska’s highest court ruled Friday that a Guatemalan mother who fought to protect her children from a dangerous country, an abusive boyfriend and unhelpful child welfare workers should not lose those children.
In a unanimous opinion, the Nebraska Supreme Court rejected the state’s petition to terminate the parental rights of the young Norfolk woman, identified only as Juana L.
Brad Easland, the Norfolk attorney appointed to represent Juana, said she was very happy about the ruling, which capped a long struggle to make a better, safer life for her three boys, who were identified in the decision as Mateo L., Pedro L. and Bryan L.
“She’s a survivor,” he said. “She’s been through a lot, and her focus has always been, ‘I’m going to do what I need to for my kids.’ ”
In its ruling, the high court found that the Madison County Attorney’s Office had met one legal standard for terminating parental rights because the children had been in foster care for 15 out of 22 months.
But the decision went on to say that the state had not proven Juana’s “unfitness as a mother” and that therefore, termination would not be in the best interests of her three boys. The court noted that a parent’s right to raise his or her children is constitutionally protected unless there is evidence to show that the parent is unfit or has forfeited his or her rights.
According to testimony described in the ruling, Juana grew up in a poor town in Guatemala and became pregnant with Mateo at age 12. The baby’s father abandoned her before his birth. She lived at first with the father’s parents but ran away when they tried to steal Mateo.
She went to live with her grandmother in another community, where she was assaulted twice by the same man. The second assault left her pregnant with Pedro. After his birth, she decided to leave Guatemala to provide a better, safer life for her children. Then 16 years old, she made her way to Norfolk, where her parents were living.
There, she began dating Carlos, eventually moving in with him and becoming pregnant with Bryan. Carlos turned out to be a heavy drinker who physically and sexually abused her and physically abused the children.
Her involvement with the Department of Health and Human Services began during that time. She was reported for leaving the 4- and 2-year-old boys home alone one time when she and Carlos took the baby to the doctor.
A state case manager began working with the family but did not remove the children. That did not happen until Juana escaped her boyfriend and took the boys to Minnesota without notifying HHS.
The children were brought back to Nebraska while Juana, who was in the U.S. illegally, went to jail for using false identification to get a job.
She ended up spending the next 21 months in custody, including time in jail, in an immigrant detention center and in the Lincoln Regional Center. The latter was to evaluate if she was mentally competent to stand trial. The evaluation showed that she was competent but had difficulty understanding the court process because of language and cultural differences and lack of education.
Juana eventually resolved the charges for using false documents and taking the children out of Nebraska in violation of the custody agreement with HHS. She was granted asylum, which allowed her to stay in the U.S., and was released in February 2020.
The State Supreme Court concluded that Juana’s criminal offenses did not affect her fitness as a mother and were unlikely to happen again.
“Her lengthy stay in jail and detention was at least partially due to her vigorous defense of her right to remain in this country with her children, and we do not fault her for the vigor of that defense,” the court said.
Chief Justice Mike Heavican added in a concurring opinion that HHS had failed in its responsibility to make “reasonable efforts” to reunify the family. He acknowledged the trying nature of child welfare jobs but implored HHS to do better.
He pointed out that Juana had repeatedly asked for visitation while she was detained but that child welfare workers arranged only a handful of visits. He also cited testimony about the lack of effort to place the children with relatives who could help them maintain ties to their culture and their mother’s language.
“I am left with the impression that DHHS had prejudged Juana’s parental fitness based on its uninformed prediction about her immigration status and that preparation was underway to discourage any further bonding between Juana and her children,” he said.
Easland said Friday’s ruling came about a month after Juana and her boys were finally reunited on a full-time basis, although with continued oversight from HHS. He said all are doing well: Juana has a job and an apartment and is working toward citizenship, and the two older boys are in elementary school. He said the family worked with counselors to put their lives back together.
The court ruling said that the process of getting them back together began last year, after the juvenile court rejected the termination petition and ordered HHS to undertake “robust reunification efforts.”