A family on the edge of disaster

The Oregonian – August 16, 2016, by Steve Duin

Two discouraging e-mails crossed my desk this week, and both are best understood in the daunting light of the other.

The first was written by Patty Cooper, her “final thoughts” on retiring after 29 years with Oregon’s Department of Human Services.

She doesn’t go quietly. “I am so glad to be in a position where I can leave because the situation in the field is the worst it has ever been,” Cooper writes. “I would never recommend that someone go into this line of work.”

The second e-mail arrived from Bob and Gina Nikkel. They are grandparents. Like so many of the grandparents I’ve heard from over the years, they are frantic that children they love are caught in the teeth of the state child welfare system.

The Nikkels are unusual in one respect, however. They are connected. They know the system and the agency heads.

Bob led the agency’s Addictions and Mental Health office until 2008. Gina is the president and CEO of the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care in Wilsonville, and a former county commissioner in Tillamook County.

But the Nikkels also know the enduring pain of what Gina calls “a family on the edge.” And their story helps explain why Patty Cooper is so anxious to put all this stress behind her.

In the last week, Gina’s daughter, Jessica, and her four children were evicted from their Tillamook shack, and moved to the Barview Jetty County Campground.

“They weren’t paying rent,” Bob Nikkel says. “The landlord got tired of the drama and chaos they bring everywhere they go.”

Lily, the oldest of Jessica’s children at 11, was born with arthrogryposis and has virtually no ability to move her arms and legs.

“You have one of the most disabled children in the state,” her grandfather says, “and she’s about to go live in a tent.”

Sean Antrim, Jessica’s husband, is currently parked at the Tillamook County Jail, charged with 16 counts of identity theft and the fraudulent use of a credit card.

Also lodged at the jail is Sean’s mother, Dolores Amelia Hunter. On June 29, she was charged with aggravated assault. According to the indictment, she attacked Jessica with a tire knocker, a wooden shaft with a malicious metal collar.

“They are a really, really dysfunctional family,” Gina Nikkel says.

“Their primary source of income,” Bob adds, “is Lily’s disability check.”

What’s more, the Nikkels say Jessica struggles to maintain any semblance of stability. The kids are often left in a world of filth and emotional neglect. Everything the grandparents provide – an oversized van, work opportunities, bail money – disappears into the morass.

“Sometimes I cry,” Gina Nikkel concedes. “Sometimes I just try to remember what I’m grateful for.”

Sometimes, these grandparents reach out to child welfare for a little help.

They didn’t get much last week. They don’t want their grandchildren removed from Jessica’s home – or tent, as the case may be. They were asking for support services. A hint of coordinated care. A flicker of compassion.

Instead, Gina says, they suffered a lecture from Reginald Richardson, the deputy director at the Department of Human Services, telling them to stop contacting the caseworker.

“He said,” Gina recalls, “‘It’s time for the family to step up to the plate.'”

When I asked DHS to detail what it had done to ease the family’s burden, Richardson released a statement to legislators and his staff, warning them that a column “critical of the agency’s actions” was in the works.

“I believe DHS has done everything it can to provide appropriate services to this family to help ensure the safety of the children,” Richardson said.

While the Nikkels disagree, they also know the complexity of the crisis the agency is being asked to resolve. We’re talking drugs, domestic violence, severe disabilities, poverty and the lack of rural methadone treatment programs.

A loss of housing, and fundamental security, that erodes Jessica’s ability to deal with everything else.

And a mother’s fear that caseworkers may decide they can only rescue the kids by stealing off with them.

As in so many families, the need overwhelms everyone in sight.

“It’s not humanly possible to meet all the requirements of the job,” writes Cooper, who grew up in the child-welfare system. “There is no stop to what comes in the door. We don’t get to say no. We don’t get to have waiting lists. And we keep getting more.”

More pain, more abuse, more addiction … and the growing certainty that few people in this world give a damn about any children but their own.

So it is that a severely disabled, disheveled 11-year-old arrives at a Tillamook campground Thursday night in a broken wheelchair.

So it is that another DHS veteran takes wing, leaving us with this note:

“I want to feel helpful, not helpless.”