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August 1, 2005

Couples fight over boy born to deaf parents

From: Lincoln Journal Star, NE - Aug 1, 2005

By NANCY HICKS / Lincoln Journal Star

The big people are fighting over little Matthew. His parents believe their 6-year-old belongs with them, in their two-bedroom apartment in Cheyenne, Wyo. They say relatives tricked them, lied to them and stole Matthew away two years ago, because they are deaf and Matthew can hear. His parents took him back.

Those relatives — Matthew's aunt and uncle — want the boy living with them, in their three-bedroom home in Hastings.

They say he's not safe with a father they believe is violent and a passive mother, a couple who blew through millions in lottery winnings and are now deep in debt.

The fight is complicated. Matthew has different legal guardians in two states. There are both criminal charges and civil cases, and six attorneys. Matthew's parents face jail time for whisking their son back to Wyoming, violating a Nebraska court order.

So for two years now, the big people have been fighting over Matthew, a blue-eyed charmer who loves Legos, can count way past 40 and sign his bedtime prayer in American Sign Language.

It is a fight with ugly allegations on both sides. Allegations that Matthew was the victim of parental neglect and abuse and allegations that his parents are the victims of intimidation and lies.

A girl from Nebraska

Eric Neuman was living in Colorado when a friend told him about this girl from Nebraska, this girl who spoke in American Sign Language like him.

He called this girl, Vicki, and they clicked, talking to each other over the TTY, a device that allows deaf people to communicate over the telephone by typing messages.

They typed notes. They visited. They fell in love. And they were married March 18, 1989, at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Hastings, with Vicki in a beautiful white gown.

Vicki Hohlen was born unable to hear. Her mother had measles during her pregnancy. Vicki, one of seven children, graduated from the Nebraska School for the Deaf in 1978.

Eric doesn't know why he lost his hearing when he was 4 or 5. He graduated from University High School in Greeley, Colo., in 1985 and has studied Web site design at a Wyoming community college.

Both are fluent in American Sign Language. Eric can speak, but his words are distorted, like his voice is walking through thick gravel.

The Neumans were childless for a decade, living in Colorado, Nebraska and then in Wyoming. They worked for Target, for Shopko, in a book bindery, in a mattress factory. Then they hit the jackpot, winning $9 million in the Colorado lottery.

In 1999, they moved to Hastings for a few months so Vicki's family could help during the birth of their son. Eric was with her in the delivery room when Matthew Frederick Neuman was born on April 7.

Like 90 percent of children born to deaf parents, Matthew could hear.

Vicki stayed home to care for their son. Eric worked, volunteered and was active in the Wyoming deaf community.

The fight over Matthew began two years ago, after the couple separated.

Eric was involved with another woman. He was confused, he said during an interview in June. He wasn't sure what was important: "Money, my wife, or love?"

So in May 2003, Vicki and Matthew, then 4, returned to Nebraska. They lived with relatives in Hastings while Eric stayed in a rented trailer in Cheyenne.

Vicki, with the help of relatives, found an apartment, enrolled Matthew in preschool, opened a checking account and signed papers for a legal separation, a divorce and a restraining order against Eric.

Legal battles begin

She also told relatives about Eric's dark side, they say. She told them he threw a chair at her. He drove 90 mph when he was angry, even when Vicki and Matthew were in the car.

She told them she was afraid of Eric, and that he was neglecting her and Matthew. He would go away for days, leaving her without a car, without money for milk, according to documents filed in the court case.

But during an interview in June, Vicki said through an interpreter that she didn't understand the legal papers she signed. She said Eric was not abusive. And she had wanted him back.

"He wanted to be separated," she said. "I wanted to be back together again."

When they decided to reconcile, the couple said, Vicki's family members intervened.

On July 6, 2003, Vicki began packing clothes for her and Matthew, getting ready for Eric to pick them up.

That's when a sister told her to decide between her husband and her child, Vicki said. If she took Matthew to Wyoming, authorities would take the boy from her, the sister warned.

Vicki must decide between her son and her husband, the sister said.

Tearfully Vicki unpacked Matthew's Thomas the Train shirt and his little blue shorts. She and Eric drove to Wyoming without their child.

They returned for their son a week later, but relatives convinced them to let the boy stay in Nebraska for two weeks to enjoy some planned family events.

When they came to get Matthew in late July, it was too late. Vicki's brother and sister-in-law had filed guardianship papers in court.

And the legal battle had started.

Skills of an 18-month-old

In the court documents in the Adams County Court guardianship case, Ron and Dena Hohlen — Vicki's brother and sister-in-law — say Matthew was developmentally delayed when he arrived in Nebraska that spring.

He did not speak properly. He wore diapers. He could not feed himself. He was troubled by nightmares. Testing showed the 4-year-old had the skills of an 18-month-old.

In July 2003, a Nebraska court gave the Hohlens temporary legal guardianship of Matthew. Today, after two years living with the Hohlens, going to preschool and getting speech, physical and occupational therapy, Matthew talks up a storm. He's ready to begin kindergarten. He no longer has nightmares, according to court documents filed by the Hohlens' attorney, Susan Alexander.

The Neumans were aware Matthew was behind his peers and they were trying to address his needs, their attorney said.

"He was not in a situation that was dangerous to his life or limb or injurious to his health and morals. He was provided the necessary food, clothing and shelter and education by Eric and Vicki Neuman," their attorney Tom Lieske said in court documents.

When he was 2½, Matthew's parents enrolled him in a special preschool program in Wyoming to help him more quickly learn spoken English. And the couple was working with Wyoming's Women, Infants and Children program on Matthew's diet since he had some problems tolerating milk.

Millions wasted

Eric and Vicki's friends say the family fight started long before Matthew was born: The Hohlens have taken advantage of the Neumans ever since the couple won $9 million in the Colorado lottery in 1995, they say.

The Neumans eventually ran out of money to give to the Hohlens, according to a a brief filed by the Neumans' attorney.

"Yet this did not stop the Hohlens from continuing to bilk the Neumans. As the Neumans approached insolvency, the Hohlens volunteered to help the Neumans sell some of their furniture to raise money. The Hohlens took their furniture, sold it, and pocketed the money."

But the Hohlens say they tried to curb Eric's spending.

The Neumans bought the KOA Campground in Hastings for $900,000 — and sold it for $236,000 against the advice of an attorney, court briefs contend.

They bought two homes, a camping trailer, land in Colorado, a boat, according to the Hohlens in court documents.

The Neumans resisted their family's advice.

Vicki had absolutely no control over the money, according to the Hohlens' account. "Vicki's father and a brother, who is a banker, approached Eric and advised him to hire an accountant to help him." He refused.

Eventually the IRS began repossessing the couple's properties for failure to pay taxes.

The money is long gone. The couple owes as much as $300,000 — to the IRS, according to court documents from attorneys for both couples.

Unfit parents, unclean home?

But the Hohlens are alleging something more serious than unbridled spending. They contend Vicki has told them Eric is violent. They believe that Matthew is unsafe and that Vicki, afraid and easily swayed, does nothing to protect him, according to court documents.

A Hastings therapist who counseled Matthew testified in court she believes he suffers from traumatic stress syndrome because of the violence in his home.

But the Neumans' attorney has other professionals who dispute that assessment.

Leslie Shelton, a legal advocate for a domestic abuse organization in Cheyenne, said Vicki and Eric were evaluated separately, and the evaluator found no indication of domestic abuse.

"If I had any inkling of any abuse, I'd be reporting it. They are good parents. Matthew is happy. He is not afraid of his parents."

The Hohlens have also accused Eric and Vicki of keeping a filthy home. And they say they have photos to prove it — photos they used as evidence in their Nebraska guardianship case. "The trailer home was dirty and stunk horrible," according to a petition by the Hohlens.

But the Neumans' friends and Vicki's mother say the photos show the result of Eric living alone for six weeks.

Vicki keeps the house clean, said her mother, Colleen Hohlen, who has sided with the Neumans.

"She is an excellent housekeeper," said Chris Bernard, a sign language interpreter who has helped the Neumans. "That was just Eric being a bachelor."

In fact, a sheriff's deputy and social service worker who made a surprise visit to the couple's trailer after the civil case was filed in Nebraska reported finding a clean, organized home, according to court documents.

And during the past two years, the Neumans have taken steps to show their commitment to good parenting, friends say.

They have driven five hours each way for the twice-monthly weekend visitations, supervised by Vicki's parents.

They took parenting classes. They saw a counselor who, Vicki told a reporter , helped her deal with the sadness of living so far from Matthew.

When parents take these kinds of steps, in a typical neglect case, the judge usually returns a child to the home, said Shelton.

And it wouldn't take two years.

But in the Nebraska guardianship case, the Neumans' attorney has not yet been able to present all his evidence.

Back to Wyoming

Earlier this month, frustrated by the constant court delays in their attempt to reclaim their son, the Neumans picked Matthew up for their weekend visitation in Hastings.

But instead of going to his grandparents' home in Hastings as required by the judge, they took their son to Wyoming.

The Hohlens were worried and angry. Matthew has been kidnapped, taken with just the clothes on his back, Dena said soon after the Neumans left.

But the Neumans say Matthew is very happy to be with them. And friends in Wyoming say Matthew tells them he doesn't want to go back to Nebraska.

Eric crawls up in his mom's lap and signs "I love you." He wraps his arms around his dad's legs. "I don't see any evidence they have been apart for two years," said Bernard.

"The boy adores them," said Shelton. "He's speaking. He's happy."

In Nebraska the Neumans face jail time and a criminal charge because they took their son out of the state and refuse to return him.

But in Wyoming they have their son with them at home with the Wyoming court's blessing.

On July 20, a Wyoming court gave permanent legal guardianship to Leslie Shelton, who has been a legal advocate for the Neumans, and her husband, Steve, a deputy sheriff.

Eric and Vicki hope the action will prevent any chance their son will be returned to the Hohlens in Nebraska.

Today they get advice and help from the Sheltons, who have a deaf son. As fall approaches, Matthew is living with his parents, getting ready for kindergarten.

Deafness, not abuse

The Neumans and their friends say the issues raised in court — the blown jackpot, the allegations of abuse, the dirty trailer — are a smoke screen for the Hohlens' real issue: the couple's deafness.

Some family members — including Dena Hohlen — believe the couple had no business having a child because they are deaf and cannot raise a hearing child, Shelton said in a telephone interview. "They believe Matthew needs to be in a hearing home," she said.

Vicki's mother, Colleen Hohlen, agrees that deafness is an issue.

"They (the Hohlens) think he cannot be a normal child growing up with deaf parents," she said during the June interview.

But Dena Hohlen said her fight for Matthew had nothing to do with deafness.

"This has everything to do with abuse and neglect," she said during a telephone conversation.

Simply, Matthew is not safe with his parents, she said.

"They couldn't raise a dog."

The big people will be in court again today, fighting for the little boy who likes to draw pictures for them.

Colleen, who sides with the Neumans against her other children, knows how much Vicki and Eric cherish Matthew.

But so do his aunt and uncle. "Ron and Dena have fallen in love with that child," Colleen said.

"It's going to be hard if they are separated."

Reach Nancy Hicks at 473-7250 or

this could go on the jump

Hearings on legal battle now waged in two states

The two-year court battle over who should raise 6-year-old Matthew Neuman, the hearing son of deaf parents, began in Nebraska when Mathew's aunt and uncle alleged the boy was unsafe with his parents.

It spilled over to Wyoming this month when Matthew's parents, Eric and Vicki Neuman, took him out of Nebraska to their apartment in Cheyenne, Wyo., violating a Nebraska court order.

It will continue Monday when the Neumans are scheduled to appear on misdemeanor criminal charges related to taking Matthew out of the state. The ongoing hearing on the original guardianship is also scheduled today.

Adams County Judge Robert Ide gave Ron and Dena Hohlen of Hastings temporary guardianship of their nephew in late July 2003, while the judge sorted through the issues.

The civil case has been slowed by changing attorneys, a host of technical issues, problems getting interpreters to translate for Vicki and Eric Neuman, who are deaf, and by long periods between court hearing dates.

The primary legal issue is whether Eric and Vicki Neuman are unfit as parents and are unwilling or unable to improve their parenting.

The Hohlens' attorney, Susan Alexander of Hastings, has provided witnesses who believe Matthew is in danger with his parents and evidence the boy had developmental problems when he came to live with the Hohlens.

The Neumans' attorney, Tom Lieske of Minden, has not yet been able to present many of his witnesses. But in court documents he refutes the abuse and neglect charges. And friends in Wyoming say the couple are loving parents who have tried to improve their parenting skills during the past two years.

The case has also involved numerous technical issues, including which state has jurisdiction and whether a judge can prolong a temporary guardianship past the six months allowed by law.

In early July, frustrated by the long court battle, the Neumans took Matthew from Nebraska to Wyoming.

Now two states are involved in Matthew's case.

The Wyoming First Judicial District Court on July 20 gave a Wyoming couple, Steve and Leslie Shelton, permanent guardianship over Matthew, at the request of his parents.

Matthew is living with his parents. And the Neumans hope that guardianship will keep Matthew in Wyoming with the Sheltons, no matter what happens in the Nebraska case.

That decision is being contested. The aunt and uncle recently asked the Wyoming court to end that guardianship and have filed a petition with the Wyoming Supreme Court.

And in Nebraska the parents face jail time and a criminal charge.

After the Neumans took their son to Cheyenne, an Adams County prosecutor filed misdemeanor criminal charges against Eric and Vicki Neuman for custody violation. The charges could result in up to six months in jail or $500 in fines, or both.

The prosecutor also sought extradition, asking the couple be arrested in Wyoming and returned to Nebraska — unusual in a misdemeanor case.

The Neumans turned themselves in to police in Wyoming, spent a night in jail and posted $1,000 bond, promising to be at a hearing today on the criminal charges in Adams County.

In addition, Judge Ide held the couple in contempt of court for violating a court order by taking Matthew to Wyoming and sentenced them to 15 days in jail if they didn't return their son to Nebraska by July 18.

They didn't. But Lieske is trying to stop that contempt order through the Nebraska Court of Appeals.

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