In re Interest of Hla H., a child under 18 years of age

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In re Interest of Hla H., a child under 18 years of age

Caselaw No.
A-16-739
Filed on
Tuesday, October 10, 2017

SUMMARY: On January 19, 2016, the State filed a petition alleging that Hla was habitually truant from school between August 12th and December 18th, 2015. The State pursued this course after a letter from the Lancaster County Attorney’s office was provided to Hla’s mother during an October 26th, 2015 “collaborative plan meeting” with an instructional coordinator at Hla’s school. The letter detailed resources in the area for the family, referred them to school system to access these resources, and gave contact information about how to contact the county’s Truancy Resources Specialist if they needed further assistance in overcoming barriers to regular school attendance. 

The coordinator gave testimony to the court during a set of adjudication hearings in June 2016 that Hla’s mother was given the form at the October meeting. He also stated that the school’s attendance team leader, a translator in the family’s native language, Hla, and himself were present at the October meeting.  The meeting was intended to help identify barriers to Hla’s attendance problems but, according to the coordinator, neither Hla nor his mother gave an explanation for the absences. A written plan was developed to improve Hla’s attendance, which both Hla and his mother signed.

Hla’s mother also indicated with her initials on a separate line of the plan that she received the County Attorney’s letter described above. The purpose of the letter was interpreted for Hla’s mother but the letter itself was not interpreted verbatim. No questions were asked by Hla or his mother about the letter, its specific contents, or any other resources the family might need to overcome barriers to Hla’s attendance. However, interpreter services to help access these services were not discussed. Hla’s attendance continued to decline until the filing by the County Attorney’s office.

In response, Hla sought to dismiss on the grounds that reasonable efforts were not made to refer his family to community resources to correct his truancy and that the lack of translation of the letter’s contents meant that the letter was not actually “received” by the family. This argument was overruled by the court and the proceedings commenced.

Subsequent testimony from Hla’s mother highlighted that she understood Hla’s attendance problem, she was unable to read in English, the interpreter told her how to access the services described in the letter, a telephone number was given to her to use “for help,” the interpreter also provided her personal number to help, she used interpreters regularly outside of this meeting, and that Hla is not fluent but speaks English functionally.

The court also heard from a social worker with the Lancaster County Public Defender’s office who detailed several accessibility issues on the Lincoln Public School website referenced in the County Attorney’s letter to help aid in accessing truancy services. The website had eighteen different headers and ninety-three different links, the majority in English and none in Karen (the native language of Hla and his mother). An interpreter phone number is provided on the website, but the operator always responded in English.

The court concluded that the school’s action met the statutory requirements to assist Hla in correcting his truancy and his “[f]ailure to comply [was] not a defense in this case,” thus finding him to be habitually truant. Hla appealed, contending that the signed letter was inadmissible due to hearsay and foundational problems and that there was insufficient evidence that the County Attorney made reasonable efforts to refer him and his family to community-based services prior to filing.

The Court of Appeals first turned to the County Attorney’s letter on the hearsay and foundational grounds alleged by Hla. Hla’s hearsay argument was dispensed with due to the Court’s finding that the letter constituted a verbal act to notify Hla and his family had been referred to community-based resources and was not definitional hearsay, citing State v. McCave, 282 Neb. 500 (2011).  The Court also deemed documents as having independent legal significance by showing that the referrals were made, not whether or not the referrals were sufficient or reasonable.

As to foundation for admitting the letter, the Court refutes Hla’s argument that the letter was not sufficiently authenticated because of a failure to identify the drafter or the signatory, citing Neb. Evid. R. 902. That rule allows for self-authentication in the case of “[a] documents bearing a seal purporting to be that of the United States, or of any state, district, . . . or a political subdivision, department, officer, or agency thereof, and a signature purporting to be an attestation or execution.” The letter given to Hla and his mother contained letterhead consisting of the County Attorney’s name, the county seal, and was signed by the Chief Deputy of the County Attorney’s Juvenile Division. The Court also deemed the letter authenticated via the testimony of the instructional coordinator, which confirmed the source of the letter during the collaboration meeting in October 2015.

With regard to reasonable efforts, the Court determined that the County Attorney’s office met the requirement of § 43-276(2) despite Hla’s assertion that it did not provide any information about services that will address the specific barriers that make attendance at school difficult. The Court reasoned that Hla and his mother, when given the chance, did not provide any rationale or explanation, nor any barriers to his attending school regularly. This is reflected in the letter itself which provides a checklist for those in the planning meeting to assess where assistance would be effective and where no such interventions were pinpointed. As a result, Hla and his family were directed to contact the service directories provided on the form in order to resolve the truancy problem, as well as aides and staff that could help locate applicable services.

The Court found that any potential language barriers could have been overcome by the interpreter provided to Hla and his family during the meeting or through translator services, both of which Hla and his mother chose not to engage. Since, no attempt was made to ask questions during the October 2015 meeting, contact services, or seek aides that could guide Hla to resources, the Court concluded that the efforts of the County Attorney were reasonable in the context of truancy and the behaviors encompassed by § 43-247(3)(b) and affirms the finding of the lower court.