Tawnie Stewart was a caseworker for the state Child Protective Service but left the organization when, she claims, she was told to lie in court about one of her cases.

"That's when I quit," said Stewart, a caseworker for Health and Human Services from 1996-97. "I didn't like anything about it. I was supposed to be working for these mothers to help them get their children back, but I was being told to work against them. I worked with a case plan supervisor who wasn't familiar with cases, but would tell me what to put in it. But the last straw was when I was told I would have to lie on the stand."

Now Stewart is working with a mother who is locked in a battle with the Nebraska Health and Human Service Department to get her children back. May Lynn Branson, a mother of two children ages 8 and 9, is locked in a dispute to determine if a foster mother in Broken Bow should get guardianship of Branson's children - a decision that could determine if Branson is allowed to see her children in the future.

Branson is supposed to have nightly telephone calls to her children, but phone records indicate the calls are completed only about six times per month. Branson said she is told by the foster mother that she has cell phone issues in her area, yet a check with the phone company indicates full coverage where the foster mom lives. The cell phone company states that no such issues should exist.

When the calls do go through, the foster mother listens on speakerphone. In one recorded conversation, Branson is heard to ask, "You have me on speakerphone again?" at which time the foster mother's voice rings out, "If you don't like, we can cut you off."

Child Protective Services came into Branson's life after a bruise was spotted on one of the children's legs at school. Investigators showed up at her doorstep and Branson, who has a mental disability, agreed to cooperate with requests to temporarily hand over her children.

Stewart said this is a standard practice.

"That's where they get you," said Stewart. "That's their tactics. They are told to tell parents like May Lynn that if they cooperate, things will go better, if not they will file criminal charges. Most people would be afraid at that point and the voluntary cooperation sounds easier, but in fact, it's better if you force them to pursue criminal actions. That way, they at least have to prove what they are saying. Otherwise, they can do what they want."

Workers trained to pressure parents, says whistleblower

Stewart said as part of her initial training, she was told, "Parents don't know their rights and you should take advantage of that by walking all over them," she said.

The Telegraph contacted the Health and Human Services Communications and Legislative Services Director Kathie Osterman for a response to Branson's case. Osterman was provided with these same details and after saying HHS would respond to what they could, did not meet a one-week deadline to provide a response.

Like Brandi Knutson's case (detailed in Saturday's story on the front page of the Telegraph), Branson was given a case plan to follow, but each time the goals of the case plan were met, the goals were changed, according to copies of the case plans. Branson has dealt with 10 different caseworkers over the last several months.

The children too have had a lack of stability, living with different foster families in different cities.

The final case plan written by Branson's current caseworker in December states, "Fair progress is being made to alleviate the causes of out-of-home placement."

Yet in the next paragraph, the caseworker recommends adoption.

Branson admits she needs to improve her living conditions. She said she is making progress with Stewart's help. She wants an opportunity to reunite with her daughters and fears a decision that could take them from her life until they turn 18.

Stewart has offered to become a guardian for the children and wants Branson to live with her and her husband. Branson's outcome will be determined by the court, but whether she has custody or not is the issue for Stewart, who said Branson certainly hasn't done anything to lose a relationship with her children.

"I've known these kids and May Lynn for a long time," said Stewart. "I have a relationship with all of them. She doesn't deserve to not have a relationship with her children. This has to stop. She hasn't done anything to deserve to have those ties to her children broken."

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