OGALLALA, Neb. -- A family is looking for answers, wondering how their son died while in the care of the state of Nebraska. They’re left wondering if their child got the oversight they feel he needed while in foster care.
Toby and Michelle Mitchell are consumed with guilt and asking, “What if?”
“Maybe if we would've just figured it out ourselves, he wouldn't have ended up there,” Michelle Mitchell said.
A few years ago, Toby Mitchell discovered he had a son in Ohio named Billy. Toby said he moved Billy to their western Nebraska home in Ogallala to make him part of their family.
“(I) just felt like I needed him in my life,” Toby said.
Soon after, Billy began exhibiting disturbing behaviors, his parents said. They said Billy tried to poison the fish tank and made other threats.
“He had thought of how to kill his brother and sister,” Michelle said.
The couple said they tried counseling at first, but Billy wasn’t making progress.
Hoping the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services could find help for Billy, they opened a voluntary case.
Billy now had access to a case worker and family support specialists and would live with a foster family until it was appropriate for him to come home.
But while in one of those foster homes, tragedy hit. Five days before Billy's 12th birthday and just two days before Christmas, Toby and Michelle rushed to the hospital.
“The doctor came in and told us, ‘I'm sorry. Your son is gone,’” Michelle said.
A post-mortem exam by the Nebraska State Patrol said Billy was found with a belt around his neck. No foul play is suspected, according to authorities.
“We don't know whether it was suicide. We don't know if it was the choking game. We don't know anything,” Michelle said.
The Mitchells want specific answers about Billy's death and want to know why the boy wasn't watched more closely in his foster home.
“I just kept looking at her going, ‘You guys were supposed to watch him. You're supposed to get him help. Why didn't you get him help?’” Michelle said.
KETV NewsWatch 7 posed the family's question to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
“The death of any child is extremely sad, especially for us, when a child is a state ward and placed in our care,” the department said in a statement. “Department staff did review this case after Billy’s death. The services that had been identified for Billy were provided. There was never a request or concern that he be monitored 24/7, and foster care was an appropriate placement.”
Advocates such as Judy Domina, of the Nebraska Family Support Network, said there's much work to be done. Though she believes there needs to be more access to care, Domina said it’s getting better.
In 2009, the Nebraska Helpline was created, giving families a place to turn for resources to help a child with mental and behavioral issues.
"It’s getting better if you know how to navigate the system, and that's why the helpline is so important for these families,” Domina said.
There’s no way to know, but Toby and Michelle said they can't help but think that if Billy had been in a facility -- getting intensive therapy -- he might still be alive. Now, they only wish things would have turned out differently for their family.
“Before we got him, there was a void. Then we got him, and now I have that void again. But this time it’s going to remain empty because we can't fill it,” Toby said.
The identity of the foster parents under whose care Billy was when he died has not been released, but authorities said they are not under investigation.
Billy's DHHS worker saw him the day of his death and said nothing seemed out of the ordinary.