Life of the Nebraska safe haven kids -
Published Sunday, January 5, 2014 at 12:30 am / Updated at 12:51 am
Life of the Nebraska safe haven kids

LINCOLN — For 10 weeks in 2008, the nation's eyes were riveted on Nebraska and its unique safe haven law.

The law allowed parents to leave children of any age at hospitals without prosecution. It had been intended to save infants.

Instead, every week brought new reports of troubled youngsters — mostly in their teens and near-teens — being dropped off.

In painful, personal detail, their stories brought to light the struggles faced by families of children with mental, emotional and behavioral problems.

By the time state lawmakers met in special session and put an age limit in the law, 27 parents and guardians had left off 36 youngsters.

Six were soon returned to the states they had come from.

The rest, ranging from 20 months to 17 years old, were taken into state custody, at least temporarily. They typified many children in Nebraska's child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

A World-Herald review five years after the drop-offs ended shows that several of those safe haven children continue living troubled lives.

In November, one of them — Tyler Thornburg, now age 22 — was charged with beating two random strangers to death.

Others have accumulated lesser criminal records. One has had her own children placed in the child welfare system. Some remain under state oversight.

Yet many safe haven children appear to have gotten past that rough period in their lives, settling down with school, jobs, spouses and children of their own.

Here are a few of their stories.

Struggles of nine siblings

Successes as well as some troubles characterize the children dropped off by widower Gary Staton at an Omaha hospital.

The youngsters became minor media celebrities when their father left all but one of his 10 children. The oldest was not eligible for safe haven because she was not a minor.

The two oldest of those dropped off, Jessey and Dakota Staton, stayed in Omaha with a guardian. Both are adults now, living on their own and working. Jessey has a child.

The children's great-aunt, Phyllis McCaul, opened her home to the seven younger children, who ranged from 20 months to 14 years old at the time. She adopted them all four years ago.

Six remain with her in her small house near downtown Lincoln.

“They're still here. We're not moving anywhere,” she said.

But the children have gotten bigger. The 6-year-old is the only one who still physically looks up to McCaul, whose nickname is “Tiny.”

The children have grown in other ways, too.

Cheyenne has started community college and works part time at Wendy's. She plans to study culinary arts, with the hope of eventually fulfilling her mother's dream of opening an eatery, McCaul said.

Makayla will graduate from high school this year. She's not sure what she wants to do but is working after school at a day care. Shawnee also is in high school.

The middle-schoolers, Justice and Levi, have graduated from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts. And Willow, now 6, has started grade school.

“They're good kids. They drive me nuts some days, and some days they're great,” McCaul said.

She hasn't given up hope for the middle child of the family, either.

Two years ago he wound up in juvenile court for misbehavior at school. McCaul let the state take custody so he could get more services. The 16-year-old has yet to return home.

His latest placement is an Iowa facility that offers specialized treatment. Being that far away means he rarely gets to see his family, which angers McCaul.

A judge recently said the boy would be moved closer to home when an appropriate place becomes available.

“He really is working hard at making changes,” she said. “If I don't quit on him, he'll make it.”

McCaul said all the children have had to wrestle with the traumas in their lives, including the father who abandoned them and a mother who died. Therapy helped most of them.

“They still do have issues,” she said, “but it's not like it's going to mess up their lives.”

Losses at an early age

Nicole Bonofede was not on track to graduate from high school when her godfather dropped her off at Immanuel Medical Center at age 15.

Her problems started before then, though.

When she was 3 she was in the car with her mother when someone shot at them. Her mother was injured, though not fatally.

Nicole ended up living with her godparents. She was 12 when her godmother died.

“She'd lost her only female figure, her friend and confidante,” said Deneen Glass, whose daughter knew Nicole in middle school.

Raising a child alone became too much for the godfather to handle.

In came Deneen Glass and her husband, Brian, who agreed to become Nicole's guardians.

“She's just a sweet, beautiful girl, and everything that's happened to her has been very misfortunate,” Glass said.

The family soon moved to Manhattan, Kan., so Nicole could start fresh.

She was barely halfway through a freshman year's worth of coursework then, even though she was a sophomore.

But she turned it around. She graduated at age 17 and worked at Dairy Queen for three years.

Last year Nicole, now 20, moved back to Omaha and had a child of her own. While she had a few problems settling back in, Glass said, she continues to succeed.

“Nicole could be a TV movie,” Glass said.

Working to get her kids back

A different kind of movie could be made about Shakora Davis.

Davis struggled after her mother left her at Creighton University Medical Center.

Then 15, she was diagnosed with a mood disorder, and the court determined that her parents couldn't care for her. She's now 20, and child welfare officials have taken her own young children away.

In 2008 her father tried to intervene, but there wasn't much he could do from federal prison.

She was sent to various placements, eventually landing at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Geneva, Neb.

She gave birth to two sons after she returned to Omaha — one in 2012, the other in 2013. Child welfare officials removed them in July.

Prosecutors alleged that the boys' father was violent with her in front of the children and that both parents abuse drugs and alcohol. The judge has set a goal of trying to reunify the family.

That's Shakora's goal as well.

She denies using drugs and said she's working hard to get her boys back.

“I now have a protection order, have a job and visit my kids every day,” she said.

Shakora defended the way she has raised her children on her own.

“They mean the world to me,” she said.

Facing a prison sentence

Becoming a safe haven child didn't stop the turmoil in DeAundre Talbot's life. He was 12 when his grandmother left him at a Lincoln hospital, saying she was afraid of him.

More than 17 other placements followed for DeAundre: foster homes, treatment foster homes, group homes, hospital psychiatric wards, children's emergency shelters, out-of-state treatment facilities.

“It got to the point where no one wanted to take him,” said Heather Talbot, his mother.

His diagnoses included attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, oppositional defiant disorder and reactive attachment disorder.

Now 17, his latest stop has been the Lancaster County Youth Detention Center, where he awaits trial on multiple criminal charges. Felony charges of burglary and terroristic threats, all filed in adult court, could send him to prison.

Heather Talbot tried to get her son back after the safe haven drop-off. A product of the child welfare system herself, she wanted to make DeAundre's life easier.

But she had her own problems: a boyfriend who abused her and her other son, a positive test for methamphetamine.

Her hopes of reunifying with DeAundre dwindled. She gave up her parental rights two years ago.

In 2012, Cindy Coleman took in DeAundre. She had been his foster mother three years earlier, until she accused him of stealing $3,000.

But she agreed to take him back and, in July, she adopted him.

There was no fairy-tale ending, though.

DeAundre continued accumulating criminal charges. From detention, he said he doesn't want anything to do with Coleman, even refusing to be identified with her last name.

“My mom's the only person that's there for me now,” he said.

DeAundre now said the prospect of prison time has convinced him to clean up his life. If given another chance, he said he could do better and would give up gang involvement.

“I just want to be around my real family members,” he said. “Family to me is like support.”

A move to turn her life around

Gabbie Burr — the former Gabriela Hensley — had more success with being adopted by her former social worker and her husband, Chelsey and Eric Burr of Bennington, in 2012.

Now 16, Gabbie is on track to graduate from high school and go to college.

But things haven't been easy. About a year and a half ago, she started lashing out at home. She argued about everything, and her grades dipped to F's.

She summarizes the problem this way: “I was a brat.”

She says she and her adoptive parents were getting used to each other. Chelsey Burr thinks Gabbie was testing them, making sure they really wanted her.

Then she just turned herself around. She studied hard and brought her grades up to passing.

“One day I was, like, maybe I should try actually doing good,” she said. “It wasn't that hard.”

Gabbie rarely thinks about her first 14 years, when she bounced between her birth family and foster care. She keeps in touch with some birth family members, though not her birth mother.

Gabbie's psychiatrist tells her that she'll probably always struggle with feelings about permanency.

She refers to her adoptive parents as “mom” and “dad” when she's talking to others. But she calls them Chelsey and Eric when she's talking to them.

“I've called so many people 'mom,' I just don't want to call anyone — I don't know, maybe someday,” she said.

But her life is mostly good. Her grades are up even more this year, she's playing volleyball and she has a life plan.

She wants to either attend a Christian four-year college to become a psychologist or psychiatrist, or she wants to go to a cosmetology school.

“We're really proud,” Chelsey said.

Legal troubles just get worse

Tyler Thornburg was easy enough to find when Lincoln police sought to arrest him in November for second-degree murder and accessory to murder.

The 22-year-old was already in jail, awaiting trial on three other felony charges.

His court record shows a string of legal troubles, including both felony and misdemeanor convictions, that stretched back to his midteens.

The criminal charges started before Tyler's mother and stepfather dropped him off at a Lincoln hospital under the former safe haven law.

The couple took that step in hopes of turning Tyler's life around.

At the time they said he refused to follow their rules, ran away and got himself in trouble. They said they could not afford the programs they believed he needed.

The family had tried counseling, medication and out-of-home placements. A juvenile judge had sent him to a group home and the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center.

Yet Tyler remained out of control.

More counseling and time in another group home after the safe haven episode didn't change his life course.

Shortly after turning 20, he was arrested for helping steal a van, setting it on fire and letting it roll into a tree. He was convicted of felony theft, for which he received probation.

Earlier this year, Tyler was arrested for having a stolen firearm, being a felon in possession of a weapon and possession of a sawed-off shotgun.

Those charges remain pending.

But they have been overshadowed by the newer charges: the ones related to beating two men to death with a baseball bat on a late June night.

Where are they now?

Most of the 36 children dropped off at hospitals under the original safe haven law during three months in 2008 were teenagers and preteens. Six were quickly returned to their home states. Here's what happened to the 30 Nebraska children.

Case status

4: Still under state supervision
9: Aged out (turned 19)
4: Guardianship
9: Adopted
4: Reunified with family

Legal and mental health troubles
Based on court records (some are in multiple categories)

20: None, or one misdemeanor/infraction
5: Juvenile offenses only
2: Multiple misdemeanor/infraction convictions or pending charges
3: Felony convictions or pending charges
1: Has children who were made state wards
4: Treated for serious mental health issues

Current age
(Ages 6 to 22)

17: Adults
13: Minors

Parental status

7: Known to have children
23: No children or unknown

Contact the writer: Martha Stoddard    |   402-473-9583    |  

Martha covers the Nebraska Legislature, the governor, state agencies, and health, education and budget issues out of our Lincoln bureau.

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