SEVENTEEN-YEAR-OLD DAN WEBER has had his share of problems with his parents, but nothing that would suggest the second coming of Dillinger. In kindergarten he stole pencils and erasers from his classmates. At 13, he started sneaking out in his father’s Subaru and got caught shoplifting chewing gum at Kmart. Finally, a month shy of Dan’s 14th birthday in 1992 Ken and Diane Weber of Omaha decided Dan’s behavior was “uncontrollable.” That’s when they turned him over to the state to be out into foster care “We wanted to use some tough love,” says Diane 33. “We just wanted to scare him.”
But despite positive reports from the boy’s foster-caregivers, the Webers say Dan’s behavior only got worse under the state’s care. In 1993 they decided they didn’t want their son returning home at all. “We decided not to reconcile,” says Diane.
That’s when Dan, then 15, began fighting back—not to return to his parents but to be allowed to visit his sister Megan, then 2, whom he had last seen when she was 5 months old. “I don’t want my sister not knowing she has a brother,” he says. Meanwhile, his parents have spent three years and more than $10,000 in a bizarre legal battle to keep him from Megan—even though a February 1994 juvenile court order grants Dan one hour of supervised visitation each month. “I love him, and he’s my son, but I don’t trust him,” says Ken, 36, who has yet to allow a visit. In April the Webers appealed to the Nebraska state supreme court to overturn the visitation order; a decision is due early next year. “We are doing what it takes to protect our girls,” says Diane who gave birth to a second daughter, Brianna, in April 1994.
As far as the Webers are concerned, that means no contact whatever with the son they gave birth to in 1978, when Ken was 18 and Diane, 15. Throughout Dan’s time in foster care, including 11 months at Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Home (also known as Boys Town), they rarely called or visited. Dan attributes the Webers’ coldness to their embarrassment over his unplanned birth. “It’s like they just wanted to start over ” he says. In fact, Ken and Diane say they had originally planned to give Dan up for adoption, but four days after his birth, Diane reclaimed him from the hospital. When the couple married nine months later, Ken found construction work and enrolled in a technical college, while Diane earned her high school equivalency diploma and cared for Dan. “I was so proud of them,” says Agnes Rosener, 56, Diane’s mother.
But as Dan grew up, trouble began. “Once [Dan] hit kindergarten, he was sneaky, sly,” says Diane. What Dan remembers most is his parents’ constant criticism. “I was nothing—that’s what my mom would tell me,” he says.
The gum-lifting incident in September 1991 brought things to a head. “He showed no remorse, no conscience,” complains Ken. Six months later, Diane gave him her tough-love ultimatum. “I said, ‘If you think you have it so bad here, how would you like to live in a foster home?’ ” she recalls.
The Webers had hoped foster care would “scare Dan straight,” but no program he was put in was tough enough, they say. In March 1993, they decided they didn’t want Dan back at all. “The tough part’s been there,” says Sarpy County Deputy Attorney Peggy Stevens. “They forgot the love part.”
Although the Webers reimburse the county the mandated $200 per month for Dan’s foster care, they have refused to comply with court orders to attend parenting classes and participate in family counseling. “I’ve done everything the court ordered,” says Dan. “Psychiatric evaluation, counseling, community service. My parents haven’t done anything.”
Actually, their zeal to keep Dan away has estranged them from the rest of their families. Like several other relatives, Dan’s grandmother Rosener called and visited Dan in foster care. She also sent gifts. “We were trying to make up some of the damage,” she says. “He felt lower than a snake in a wagon track.”
When the Webers found out, they were furious. From then on, all holiday cards, wedding invitations and gifts from other family members were simply returned unopened. In August 1993, Dan left Boys Town and moved in with Rosener, a home-care nurse, who says, “He’s a joy. I’ve never had one ounce of trouble.”
Still, Dan has had his problems. In June 1994, Ken, who had been following his son regularly since March, caught him driving without a license. (Dan received a community service sentence. Ken was ordered by the court to stop tailing his son.)
And in September, Dan dropped out of high school, although he has since taken the GED test and is working two jobs, one at a hotel laundry, the other in telemarketing, to earn money for college. “He’s not a dumb kid,” says his aunt Stephanie Barnes, Ken’s sister. “He was beaten down self-esteem-wise. Totally bummed out.”
About five miles away from the Rosener home, where Dan now lives, Diane, a full-time mother, and Ken, a foreman for the county highway department, are raising their daughters in a cozy three-bedroom house. They display no pictures of Dan and say Megan has no memory of him. For Dan, that’s all the more reason to keep fighting. “I think they need to grow up ” he says of his parents. “They can’t just get rid of me. I’m still their kid.”
LEAH ESKIN in Omaha