Outlook Improves for Child Welfare
System Overload in Child Welfare Has a Brutal Backlash.
By Lisa Kim Bach | Las Vegas Review-Journal —
Infants born exposed to illegal drugs begin stacking up in local hospital nurseries when Clark County runs out of foster homes and shelter space.
Juvenile victims of neglect end up sleeping on cots in Child Haven’s gym when the emergency shelter is stretched past its limit.
Overburdened front-line workers for Clark County Family Services see their caseloads spike past manageable levels, sometimes with tragic results.
Everyone in Clark County with a stake in child welfare knows all that – the worst happened here last summer.
As Clark County again approaches a peak time for the intake of maltreated children, the Department of Family Services finds itself under heightened scrutiny but in a slightly better position to cope.
“Our numbers are not leading me to believe we are going to have a problem again,” said Lou Palma, manager of shelter services for Clark County Family Services.
For one thing, the current population at Child Haven and in other shelter care is down almost 33 percent from this time last year. In mid-May, the population of children in protective custody was at 224, with 135 juveniles at Child Haven and 89 others in shelter care. At the same time in 2006, Palma said, 333 children were in protective custody, with 164 of them at Child Haven and 169 others in shelter programs.
“We’re in a much better spot than we were a year ago,” Palma said.
The county’s Department of Family Services also reports a modest gain in the number of available foster families. Since November, the number of nonrelative foster homes has increased by 13 percent, to 378 from 335. That expands foster home capacity by an estimated 130 beds.
“It’s increased a bit, not as much as we want and not as much as it will be within the next six months and within the next year,” said Ron Davidson, assistant director of Clark County Services.
Davidson said new positions created by Clark County to develop foster home recruitment and retention will contribute to future gains in capacity. That was identified as a priority in a voluntary agreement between Clark County, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, and the California-based Youth Law Center. In March, all three groups negotiated a nonbinding resolution that included a call for ending the practice of placing children under 3 in group care situations such as Child Haven.
The ACLU and the nonprofit Youth Law Center began meeting with the county after identifying systemic problems within Family Services that both groups saw as a violation of children’s civil rights.
“We are trying to do things that divert kids from being placed in Child Haven,” said Tom Morton, director of Family Services. “In April, according to our data, 53 percent of the kids who entered Child Haven actually left within three days.”
Some of that is because of stepped-up efforts to place children with relatives, Morton said. Those kinds of arrangements can usually be made fairly quickly.
Morton also speculated that last year’s high intake of abused and neglected children may have been driven, in part, by the widely publicized problems within Family Services – the long waits faced by callers to the child abuse reporting hotline, the failure to investigate suspicious child deaths that occurred between 2001 and 2004, and the deaths of children known to the system.
Morton said he has no data to support that, but it is something that’s occurred in other states with troubled child welfare systems. Police and caseworkers working in the shadow of negative publicity may take children into custody more often than they normally would, Morton said.
The high-profile death of 17-month-old Joshua Sharp was part of what spurred advocacy groups to press for the placement of young children with families instead of in group care. Sharp died in August after going into respiratory failure at Child Haven. According to the coroner’s report, Joshua had a prolonged ear infection that turned into a blood infection. The strain to his organs stopped his heart.
At the time of Sharp’s death, Child Haven was experiencing chronic overpopulation, with as many as 228 infants and children in residence. Sharp was one of 18 infants sharing a cottage at the shelter.
Child advocates questioned why an ear infection was allowed to develop into a fatal condition and blamed the crowded group-care situation for contributing to Sharp’s decline. Sharp’s death is still an issue of contention between Clark County Family Services and the state Department of Health and Human Services, which has oversight authority of child welfare agencies. Both agencies are currently trying to come to terms for establishing a corrective action plan that addresses issues raised by the Sharp case, including quality of medical care and supervision.
The death of Sharp moved U.S. Rep. Jon Porter to become more deeply involved in child welfare issues within Clark County. In addition to meeting with local and state officials on the topic of improvement, the Nevada Republican invited independent consultant Ed Cotton to testify before a congressional committee on child welfare problems in Clark County.
Earlier this month, Cotton shared with federal legislators the results of his 2006 review of 1,352 Clark County Family Services cases. His report sent the community reeling and prompted Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid and state Health and Human Services Director Mike Willden to demand that local Family Services workers revisit 55 cases in which children might have been left in dangerous circumstances.
“We have received assurances from the county that they are taking the proper steps to fix the problems,” Porter said. “But when we have the very consultant the county hired saying that they aren’t taking care of the problem, I want to get to the bottom of it.”
On Thursday, Porter sent a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt seeking increased federal involvement in improving Clark County child welfare.
Porter is asking that federal officials set up a briefing with him and local officials in Clark County in June. The congressman also plans to have a roundtable discussion with state and local child welfare officials in July.
In addition, Porter wants federal officials to identify any federal programs, grants or other assistance that might be available to Clark County and the State of Nevada.
“We are interested in exploring any additional steps that may be needed to help Clark County improve their child welfare system,” Porter told Leavitt in his letter. “We want to make sure, in partnership with the federal government, state and Clark County, our children are being protected.”