Ex-safe haven kid has a home at last - Omaha.com
Published Sunday, February 19, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 7:30 am
Ex-safe haven kid has a home at last

Gabbie Hensley looked right at home.

It was a Friday evening in February in suburban Omaha. Gabbie, a 6-foot athlete who is obsessed with texting and loves honors English, was still wearing a blue-and-yellow Omaha North High jersey and shorts after freshman basketball practice.

She perched in the corner of a sofa, next to her new mom. Gabbie's left leg extended off the cushions so an aching ankle, wrapped and iced, could rest on the floor. She pushed back her blond hair and started telling her story.

"I was born on Sept. 22, 1997," she said. "My mom was 19 at the time. She couldn't take care of me then, and she gave me to my grandma. It was only going to be for a few short months."

It was, in fact, the beginning of 14 years of permanently temporary living for Gabbie, much of her childhood spent in homes where she didn't really belong and, toward the end, with a few exceptions, wasn't really wanted — at least, as far as she could tell.

Gabbie's grandmother gave her back to her mother when Gabbie was 7. Gabbie's mother abandoned the girl at age 11. She left Gabbie at Bergan Mercy Medical Center in Omaha, making her No. 29 of the 36 children dropped off by parents under Nebraska's short-lived safe haven law of 2008.

In the next three years Gabbie lived in eight foster homes and two emergency shelters.

Then, just when it seemed nobody would ever give her a real home, an unlikely couple stepped forward: Newlyweds Chelsey and Eric Burr, only 26 and 27 themselves, said they wanted to adopt her. Chelsey was one of her social workers and Eric was a graduate student teaching biology lab classes at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and working at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

It was in their home, in Bennington, where Gabbie lounged on the couch.

It is her home, too, though the adoption can't be formalized for at least five months.

It could be a happy-ever-after ending to the story of Gabbie's permanently temporary childhood.

"This isn't something we're just trying out," said Chelsey, beside Gabbie on the couch.

"We're making a huge commitment to her, and she's making a huge commitment to us," Eric said. "It's forever. Family doesn't give up on each other. ... I tell her she's our firstborn. She's our daughter. She always will be."

* * * * *

Gabbie's story

You can tell Gabbie has told her story a lot. She has told it to social workers, police officers, school counselors, psychiatrists, therapists, lawyers and judges.

She kept her voice calm. A slight tone of "whatever" tinged the way she dismissively described events that could have been blurted out in sobs.

A few times, she laughed. Once in a while, Gabbie whisked a finger across the corner of an eye. You would cry too. Anyone would.

Before Gabbie was born, her mother, Jessica, wanted to give her up for adoption. She even had a couple picked out to take her.

But Jessica's mother talked her out of it. She said she would raise Gabbie until Jessica was ready.

Gabbie saw her biological mother occasionally but didn't really know who she was. Gabbie was told that her grandmother was her mother and that her mother was her sister.

Gabbie lived with her grandmother until age 7, when her biological mother said she was ready to take her. Gabbie's grandmother, Jerry Walker, agreed.

That's when Gabbie found out Jessica was her mother.

Gabbie lived about three years with her. Jessica married a former boyfriend. Gabbie said he yelled at her, demeaned her, called her names. She argued with him, and with her mother. Sometimes, Gabbie said, she wished she didn't live there.

At school, she was seen as well-behaved, smart and a good volleyball player.

At home, her mother saw her 11-year-old daughter as "a stranger in the house," according to what the mother told authorities.

* * * * *

State haven law

By the fall of 2008, Jessica was thinking of using Nebraska's new safe haven law. The law was intended to protect a child by allowing the parents to leave the boy or girl at a hospital without fear of prosecution.

Unlike other states' statutes, Nebraska's safe haven law at the time set no limit on the age a child could be when legally abandoned. The Nebraska Legislature has since changed the law, capping the child's age at 30 days.

The original law was still in effect the morning of Nov. 7, 2008. That day, Gabbie, age 11, accidentally spilled candle wax in her mother's home. That ignited another blowup with her mother.

"She told me that she was going to take me shopping," Gabbie said. "We went to Bergan Mercy. She told me: 'You're going into a foster home.'"

At the hospital, Jessica told police and social workers Gabbie needed counseling that Jessica couldn't afford, records show. They offered to have Gabbie evaluated, but Jessica told them she was done.

Records of the case describe behavior that would sound familiar to many parents of teenagers: She wouldn't obey. She argued with her parents. She didn't always tell the truth.

"Per the school counselor, the impression that she has is that (Gabbie) is an unwanted child," according to a memo in the records of her case. "The types of situations that the mom described to her as being impossible with (Gabbie) were minimal situations. (Gabbie) has no behavioral problems at school. ... She is doing fine academically." Another memo noted she "has a good sense of humor."

Gabbie's mother, Jessica, could not be reached for comment for this article.

A hospital report described how mother and daughter parted: "After one last offer ... to evaluate patient, mother responded, 'I am done.' Mother put on her coat, kissed patient and told patient 'I love you,' then left."

* * * * *

'I wasn't sad'

Sprawled on the sofa in her new home, Gabbie described how she felt that day.

"I wasn't angry. I wasn't sad. I was, like, 'If you don't love me, then leave me.'"

The emotions didn't hit her until a couple of weeks later. Some fellow students at Central Middle School in Millard made it worse by teasing her. Others tried to make it better, offering gifts of teddy bears, candy, games, even money.

"One kid gave me $50, and I said 'You can keep it,'" she said. "I gave everything back because I didn't want it. It reminded me of my mother."

Gabbie immediately hit it off with her first foster mom, a woman named Heidi who was in the Air Force.

"She always talked to me about everything," Gabbie said. "We sat down and ate dinner together. We went to church together. She taught me how to clean house."

But the Air Force transferred Heidi away from Omaha. She later died of breast cancer.

Gabbie bounced through a succession of foster homes. "I really didn't get along with any of them," she said.

She acknowledges she sabotaged some, where she felt the foster parents were rude and mean.

"I tried to be really bad so that they would tell caseworkers that they didn't want me anymore," she said. "I would throw dishes at them. Once I knocked over a fish tank onto the floor."

Gabbie spent a month in a shelter. It was, she said, the worst month of her life.

* * * * *

Gabbie gets new caseworker

She was in yet another foster home by the time Chelsey Burr was assigned to her case in May 2009. The situation was less than ideal. Gabbie spent most of her home time in her bedroom, watching television, left out of family activities.

She felt isolated and excluded.

In a meeting with Chelsey, the foster mother said — in front of Gabbie — that she needed more money to take care of the girl and that, if she didn't get it, she would put in her notice to give up Gabbie.

"I told her 'You can't say that in front of Gabbie,'" Chelsey said.

"I started crying," Gabbie said. "I thought 'I'm not going to live here anymore.'"

The agency reprimanded the foster mother. Gabbie moved on to yet another foster home, a better fit.

* * * * *

'We clicked right away'

At the same time, she was moving into Chelsey Burr's heart.

"There's just something about Gabbie," Chelsey said. "I don't know what it is. She's so resilient. She's so funny. I felt like we clicked right away."

At first the feeling was not mutual. The bubbly, curly-haired young social worker, with her sunshiny smile and cheery voice ... it was all a little much for the tweener who had seen a parade of caseworkers and foster parents come and go.

"The first time I met her, I didn't like her," Gabbie said. "She was annoying. She was all smiles and stuff."

But Gabbie warmed to Chelsey as time went on. Chelsey visited weekly. They talked in Gabbie's room. Gabbie opened up.

"She saw the real Gabbie," said Kate Meinert, a social worker. "She's amazing. She's hilarious. She's witty. She's smart."

Chelsey started talking to Eric, then her fiance, about this wonderful client. She couldn't tell him much, because of confidentiality rules. But they began discussing adoption.

Gabbie's biological father, whom she barely knew, had relinquished his parental rights. Her biological mother also had.

Other relatives weren't going to work out. Gabbie's latest foster mother liked her but was unsure about adoption. The judge overseeing Gabbie's case, Douglas Johnson of Douglas County Juvenile Court, was pressing for a permanent placement.

Gabbie gigged Chelsey.

"I would always be, like, 'You should adopt me,'" Gabbie said.

Chelsey had to be coy.

"It tugs at your heartstrings that you can't say 'I know. I want to,'" Chelsey said, "because I didn't want to lead her on."

* * * * *

Open to the idea but hesitant

Eric was open to the idea, but hesitant. How could young newlyweds bring into their home a teenager he had never met? He worried he couldn't give Gabbie what she needed. In addition to his graduate studies and two part-time jobs, he's also applying to medical school.

"I didn't want to shortchange her," Eric said.

They talked about it for a year. They talked with their parents and with their pastor at Flatland Church.

In November, Gabbie's foster mother put in notice that she couldn't keep Gabbie beyond December. It was time for the Burrs to make their move.

Chelsey's director at Omni Behavioral Health approved. Gabbie's therapist endorsed the idea.

They arranged for Gabbie to meet Eric several times. She was standoffish at first, then warmed to the energetic young man with spiky brown hair, a soul patch and a goofy sense of humor.

Once Eric came to know Gabbie, he was on board. It was time to ask Gabbie. The Burrs invited her over.

"We need to talk," Chelsey told Gabbie.

"What, are you pregnant?" Gabbie joked.

They read aloud letters they had written to her about how they felt and why they wanted her.

"I was shocked," Gabbie said. "I was, like, 'Oh, my God!'"

The couple also showed her an inch-thick book of rules in a three-ring binder. They wanted her to know what she would be getting into. She was fine with that. Then they told her she would have to switch schools next fall.

Gabbie hesitated.

"I didn't want to at first," she said.

Later, all three went out to dinner. The Burrs told her not to rush a decision. Think about it.

"This wasn't just a decision for us," Eric said. "It's for her. We wanted the best for her. If not living with us wasn't the best for her, then that's what we wanted."

After dinner, Gabbie asked Chelsey to take her shopping. They talked at length. Gabbie said she wanted to do it. Chelsey advised her to sleep on it.

"The next day I got a text from her saying she would do it," Chelsey said.

She and Eric were ecstatic. They knew there would be challenges, they said, but they would deal with them together, as a family.

* * * * *

Pre-adoption party

Gabbie moved in on Jan. 16. On Feb. 3, the Burrs threw a pre-adoption party for her at Digz Volleyball in Millard. Gabbie played volleyball and basketball with friends. Then she changed into a sparkly black dress with a big pink bow.

After pizza, before cake, Gabbie sat in front of about 50 people. Jerry and David Walker, her grandmother and step-grandfather, were there. So were the Burrs' parents.

"This is one of the biggest days in the history of our family," said Jerry Walker, adding that she "absolutely" plans to stay involved in Gabbie's life. "It's amazing that this is happening for Gabbie. These people love her so much."

Eric and Chelsey stood beside Gabbie. Chelsey said she had an announcement.

"You going to cry again?" Gabbie deadpanned.

"I might," Chelsey said with a smile, then told the group: "When I first met Gabbie, I knew right away she just was a special kid. Over two years, I just fell in love with her. ... She's the most amazing person ever."

Then it was Eric's turn.

"I couldn't be more proud than to have you as my daughter," he told Gabbie. "From us to you, welcome to our family."

They wrapped her in a hug between the two of them. She smiled.

She had a family and a home to call her own, at last.

Contact the writer:

402-444-1057, christopher.burbach@owh.com

Contact the writer: Christopher Burbach

christopher.burbach@owh.com    |   402-444-1057    |  

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