Clark County Family Services Problems: A series in the Las Vegas Sun
Clark County reviewing 82 cases of potential child harm
Move highlights rift between DA’s office, Family Services
By Joe Schoenmann (contact)
July 25, 2010
Beyond the Sun
· Kaiser Family Foundation state health facts
· Federal class action suit filed against county child welfare system (4-14-2010)
· County family services director: Cuts would cause chaos, cost jobs (2-10-2010)
· Woman sentenced to 50 years in death of foster son (2-4-2010)
· Budget cuts could thin the ranks of foster parents (10-30-2009)
· Gains in child protection threatened (5-7-2009)
· County Commission chairman rejecting child welfare cuts (11-19-2008)
The Clark County manager is reviewing 82 cases in which the district attorney’s office claims the county’s own child protection agency would have returned children to dangerous homes or would not have removed them quickly had the DA not intervened.
Summaries of the cases were offered to the Legislative Committee on Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice in late June.
County Manager Virginia Valentine last week disclosed that her office is reviewing them and urged the public to withhold judgment.
The review “will determine if any structural, procedural or other changes need to be made to address conditions that may have led to adverse outcomes in these cases,” Valentine told the Sun.
Family Services Director Tom Morton did not respond to a request to be interviewed for this story.
The number of cases and Valentine’s decision to examine them are the latest in a long-running dispute between county prosecutors and Family Services over whether children are adequately represented in hearings where their fates are decided.
Involving children, birth parents, foster parents and often stepmothers or stepfathers, many of the cases outline family histories riddled with alcohol, drugs, mental illness, sexual abuse and other behavior. Some end in a child’s death. The summaries lay out a dark landscape where children, many of whom have just started life, are beaten down in the one place most people turn to for support: home.
One of the cases cited began in May 2008.
A 1-year-old boy was found to have been severely abused by his father’s girlfriend. He had whip marks from an extension cord on his genitals. After the whipping was discovered, the father hid the child from authorities for three days. Later, the father and his girlfriend “intentionally misdirected” caseworkers, according to the district attorney’s office, so they could not find the girlfriend, who was pregnant. The two wanted “to prevent their new baby from being taken into care.” But the woman’s parents helped authorities, and the baby was taken into custody.
Eventually the dad and his girlfriend partially completed “case plans” and were reunited with the baby and little boy. The case was closed May 6.
But on June 4 the boy, now 3, was taken to University Medical Center for traumatic head injury. He died. The boy had a broken leg in a cast from three weeks earlier. Both injuries occurred while the boy was in the care of the girlfriend.
The district attorney wrote: “(Family Services) left new baby in father’s care and custody until removed by the court on (June 15) at the request of the (district attorney).”
In a November case, a mother’s boyfriend was sentenced to three years in prison for sexually abusing her 14-year-old daughter. The mother, the summary says, never completed parent counseling, and Family Services “failed to insure her participation.”
Instead, Family Services recommended closing the case and not making the girl and an 8-year-old boy — the man’s son — wards of the state, according to the district attorney. Family Services reported the girl cut herself and was suicidal after the mother continued a relationship with the man.
In response, the district attorney filed another petition against the mother for neglect and emotional abuse of the girl.
In the past, Morton has touted the declining number of children in Child Haven, the once-overflowing emergency shelter for abused and neglected children, as an example of how his policies are bettering the system. He was hired in mid-2006 when Family Services was under siege.
At the time, public anger stemmed from a withering review of 79 child deaths from 2001 to 2004. That review by a state panel found serious problems with how the deaths were investigated.
But Child Haven’s declining numbers were interpreted by some as a turnaround at Family Services. Last year, for instance, while Family Services fought state funding cuts, Morton’s department told the Sun the number of children in Child Haven on May 4, 2009, was 10. In June 2006, it had 230 children, leading to “warehousing” in hospital nurseries infants who could not fit into the shelter.
Morton dealt with Child Haven, in part, by speeding up background checks to move children in with relatives and by putting them in closely monitored neighborhood-based foster homes within 24 hours of arrival at Child Haven. That push hasn’t always worked. In February 2008, a leaked e-mail said 22 children involved in abuse and neglect cases over two months were placed with relatives or family friends before proper criminal background checks were completed. The e-mail from a Family Services administrator demanded that the practice “cease and desist immediately.”
At the June legislative committee meeting, some testimony was critical of Family Services. The committee was considering legislation that would force the district attorney’s office to represent only Family Services. As it now works, the DA represents only the interests of the public, which many times means the children, and Family Services is represented de facto when the two departments agree. When they disagree, Family Services has no legal representation. Legislators believe the system confuses judges and sends a mixed message about what’s best for the child. The district attorney has opposed such legislation in the past.
“We should never have 82 cases with serious disputes between the DA and a social services office,” Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said Thursday. She heads the child welfare committee. “Obviously, this has gotten out of hand.”
That much was made clear during testimony before her committee.
Assistant District Attorney Teresa Lowry, responsible for the office’s Family Support, Juvenile and Child Welfare divisions, stressed the importance of training social services employees and keeping the district attorney involved as a “check and balance.”
“One of the deficiencies in our state is that our (Family Services) case managers are not trained,” she said. She added that for more than a decade “we have had the issue of having untrained, undertrained, underresourced, underfunded child welfare programs and systems. All the more reason for the checks and balances (the current system) provides.”
Capt. Vincent Cannito, commander of Metro’s Crimes Against Youth & Family Bureau, said he could pull 50 cases of Family Service employees failing to notify law enforcement, failing to cooperate with law enforcement, failing to respond and other problems.
He blamed Family Services’ administration, saying “it was bad 20 years ago; it’s that much worse now under the current administration.”
Communication is part of the problem, he added. When he became bureau commander three years ago, he tried to set up meetings with Family Services administrators, he said.
“That has yet to happen.”
Cannito said his bureau also has offered investigative training to Family Services at no cost.
“To this day, that has yet to happen,” he added.
If the state were ever to remove the district attorney’s office from the process, he said, they’d be “taking a terrible situation and making it that much worse.”
At a July 12 committee meeting, Constance Brooks, a Clark County senior management analyst, said besides reviewing the cases, the county and district attorney would work within a 2010 policy designed to address disputes between Family Services and county prosecutors. The county also will keep trying to identify problem cases and “make changes” to address them.
During the first week of the 2011 legislative session, the county will report to Leslie about “progress achieved through this agreement.”
In the meantime, County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said Friday she will establish an ad hoc committee to look at the system because the “current system still isn’t working.”
Allegation claims Child Haven numbers falsified
Former county administrator says she was asked to alter documents on how long children spend at center
By Joe Schoenmann (contact)
Aug. 13, 2010
· E-mail from Teresa Medina to County Manager Virginia Valentine
A former Clark County child welfare administrator charges she was ordered to lie about the number of children at Child Haven to make it appear the county’s Family Services Department was doing a better job of placing children into foster care.
Teresa Medina said she quit her $65,000-a-year job because “I was asked to falsify documents relating to the time children arrived to the center and when they were pushed out into foster care,” she wrote in an e-mail to County Manager Virginia Valentine after she resigned.
“I was afraid of what I’d be asked to do next, what I’d be asked to lie about next,” she added, blaming Family Services Director Tom Morton for creating an “illusion that things are better for Clark County children.”
Medina, who supervised the reception center at Child Haven and who now works in Texas, reiterated her allegations in an interview with the Sun.
Valentine said she never saw the e-mail, and Morton denied that his employees were asked to lie or that children are imperiled by being placed in foster homes too soon.
“The argument that our policies and practices have made children less safe aren’t borne out by the numbers, otherwise we’d have an increase in child deaths,” he said.
Medina’s claims and the rebuttal are the latest development in the long-running controversy over how well Family Services cares for children.
The district attorney’s office in June produced 82 cases from over about five years that it said demonstrated Family Services was returning children to dangerous homes or not removing them quickly enough from the homes. Metro Police said it had offered free investigatory training, but Family Services never responded.
Valentine said a few weeks ago the county is reviewing the cases, and she has ordered Metro, the district attorney’s office and Family Services to work more closely together.
Medina said that while the department was supposed to count a child as a resident of Child Haven if he or she had been there for 24 hours, she and others were told not to count them unless they had been there for 30 hours. The result, she said, was that fewer children appeared to be staying at Child Haven than was the case.
The number of children at Child Haven has become a barometer in gauging the success of Family Services, especially after the department was threatened with lawsuits when the number reached 230 and one child died.
Once overflowing with children, the center sees about 330 a month, but they are moved quickly into foster homes or with relatives. Only two children resided there about noon Thursday.
Morton says Family Services has doubled its number of foster homes in the past four years, and that the rate that children have monthly contact with a county case worker has increased from 50 percent to 97 percent.
Medina said Family Services’ push to lower the occupancy at Child Haven risks rushing children into homes that might not be adequately investigated or might be a bad match for the children and the foster families.
She said she remembers one case involving a teenage girl sexually abused by her grandfather. Her supervisor, Medina said, wanted the teen out of Child Haven within 24 hours and found a foster home. But when the foster parents came to get her, the girl broke down — they were an elderly couple.
Medina said her request that more time be taken to find a better match was rejected.
Clark County’s experience with children taken into custody is a real-world testing ground for an academic debate that seems to have no decisive winner: Is it better to place neglected children in a family setting or foster home, or house them in congregate care such as a residential facility or a place like Child Haven?
Morton, who founded the Atlanta-based Child Welfare Institute, was hired in 2006 to oversee Family Services. Morton sped up background checks to place children with relatives, foster homes or into neighborhood-based foster homes within 24 hours of their arrival at Child Haven.
Even so, the National Center for Youth Law filed a lawsuit in federal court this year on behalf of 13 children, claiming investigations of abuse and neglect are substandard, as are medical and mental health treatment.
One child care expert thinks Clark County is moving in the right direction in child placements.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va., said research has demonstrated that it’s far better for a child’s well-being to leave an institution such as Child Haven and enter a home.
“Most of the objective scholarship says that where you can have good foster homes, you can’t have good institutions,” Wexler said. “Not that you can’t have nice people with good intentions (operating institutions), but institutionalization is inherently not a good system.”
Still, Wexler thinks Clark County has a problem because it removes too many children too quickly from their families. “They need to stop taking children from homes needlessly.”
The more that children are removed from their families, the more pressure there is on case workers to quickly find them new homes, at the risk of insufficient background investigation, Wexler said.
“They’re not going to do the extra check, make the extra phone call,” he said. “Not because they don’t care, but because they don’t have the time. Wrongful taking (of children) leads to much worse.”
Medina works at Boys and Girls Country of Houston, a privately funded residential facility run by Lou Palma, the former manager of Child Haven who was fired nearly a year ago for reasons the county did not disclose.
Medina said she doesn’t think Child Haven should serve as a long-term residence for children. “I just want to know what the harm is in keeping a kid for a week and getting them settled, making them comfortable about where they’re going instead of giving them a meal, a psych assessment, new clothes and pushing them out the door.”
Fixing a flawed system
Child welfare cases deserve teamwork from Clark County professionals
July 27, 2010
Among the toughest decisions facing Clark County social workers is determining when it is appropriate to remove children from their households based on allegations of abuse or neglect. Many times, it takes nothing more than common sense to conclude that an abused child with obvious physical or emotional scars should be removed immediately from a dangerous home environment and placed in the child welfare system. On the other extreme are situations where all it takes is parental instruction on basic tasks such as housekeeping or knowing how to balance a checkbook to justify keeping children in their homes.
The fact remains that child welfare in Clark County, as it is in many other locales throughout the country, is an imperfect system that is difficult to fix.
That’s because determining the best interests of the child is an extremely complex, emotionally charged process that involves the delicate fabric of a troubled family, along with legal, financial and medical issues.
The latest evidence of this, as reported Sunday by the Las Vegas Sun’s Joe Schoenmann, is the fact that Clark County Manager Virginia Valentine is reviewing 82 cases in which the district attorney’s office says that the county’s Family Services Department would have returned children to dangerous homes or would not have had them removed quickly had the DA not intervened. These cases have led to finger-pointing among the district attorney’s office, Metro Police and Family Services.
Where children are concerned, it is time for these parochial battles to end once and for all.
In its place, we urge Family Services and law enforcement agencies to work together on a comprehensive strategy with a singular goal — doing what is best for the child. A county senior management analyst said related discussions have been planned, but we believe everything should be on the table, even if it takes reconstructing the child welfare system from scratch.
Start with basics such as a definition of child abuse or neglect. Take a close look at social worker training and caseloads. Don’t settle for a well-trained caseworker with an unduly heavy case-load or an ill-trained worker with an average load. Both scenarios can produce wrongheaded snap judgments that are not good for the child. Superior training and reasonable caseloads should be the reality, not some fantasy.
Work on better communication between Family Services and law enforcement to provide the team effort children deserve. Make sure children are adequately represented in court, whether that means participation from the district attorney’s office or use of pro bono private attorneys or another legal avenue that is fair to all parties involved.
To keep as many children in their homes as possible, the county should ensure that there is enough counseling and other resources available to help well-meaning but troubled parents regain the footing they need to rear their children in a safe, nurturing environment.
On behalf of children who must be removed from their homes and placed elsewhere on a long-term basis, conduct a thorough review of the foster care system. Make sure foster parents are both properly screened and adequately paid for the services they provide. Do as much as possible to keep siblings together.
Do all of these things and we may one day have a child welfare system that is rid of scandal and finger-pointing. The children who are involved in abuse and neglect cases have already had a rough go. They deserve nothing less than full cooperation and teamwork from the professionals who control their destiny.