Friday, May 16, 2003 | 11:49 a.m.
The system that is supposed to protect Nevada's children is overwhelmed, experts say, and statistics back them up.
In the last two years the number of investigations by Clark County child protective services rose by 30 percent while the ratio of caseworkers to cases in the county and rest of the state remained one of the worst in the nation.
That's one reason that "kids fall through the cracks" of the state's child protective system, said Las Vegan Teresa Becker, president of the 150-member Foster Parent Association of Southern Nevada.
Last June, for example, 5-year-old Raymond Spinharey died after being found in a hot parked car. Clark County child protective caseworkers were supposed to be keeping tabs on the boy's safety in the wake of prior allegations that his mother was neglecting him.
Caseworkers tried to check on Spinharey, but experts say there are just too many children like him for Nevada's limited safety net to catch. Nevada ranked 16th among the states in the number of child abuse or neglect victims per 1,000 children up to age 3, according to a federal report in 2000.
"We've had an increase in child abuse and neglect investigations, but not an increase in staff," Susan Klein-Rothschild, Clark County Department of Family Services director, said. "In 2000 we had 6,359 investigations; in 2002 we had 8,291."
She said she was at a loss to explain why the increase in cases has been so sharp.
"We have also seen an increase not only in the number of cases but in the number of more difficult cases," Klein-Rothschild said. "We've had a lot more children going into foster care. We went from 426 in 2000 to 666 in 2002," a 56 percent increase.
Those 666 children, however, represented only 19.5 percent of the 3,409 children taken out of Clark County homes last year. The other 2,035 children returned home or were placed with relatives after no more than three months in the child protective system.
But Klein-Rothschild said that even children who are returned home often represent more difficult cases than in previous years because today's families face a larger variety of societal ills than in the past.
"We have more families with complex needs because of domestic violence or substance abuse," she said. "Sometimes the special needs of a child add stress to the parent and the child."
Another major problem for Nevada's child protective system is that many of the children need mental health services. Clark County has a severe shortage of mental health services for victims of child abuse or neglect, Klein-Rothschild said.
Seventy percent of children under the county's protection and 46.7 percent in state care did not have adequate mental health services, the Clark County Children's Mental Health Consortium reported last year. The consortium, which represents a broad cross section of agencies, also found that 43.8 percent of the county-supervised children who had severe emotional disturbances had no mental health services. Klein-Rothschild said paying for mental health services would be more inexpensive in the long run because "if we ignore kids' mental health needs, they just get worse and their problems don't go away." Many of those children become alcohol or drug abusers and juvenile delinquents, and society ends up paying the higher bills to imprison them, she said.
The consortium's report concluded that: "Nevada has one of the fastest-growing populations in the country, but funding for children's behavioral health services has shown little increase in the past 10 years."
That situation should improve next month in the county when 128 children with serious emotional disturbances begin receiving mental health services, thanks to state funding approved in 2001. Gov. Kenny Guinn's budget for the next biennium includes funding for an additional 95 county children who need those services but aren't receiving them.
That progress may be offset, however. Guinn's recommended funding to increase the ranks of child protective service caseworkers appears headed for rejection. Last week a Senate-Assembly budget subcommittee recommended slashing $2.2 million for Clark County caseworkers.
That recommendation came despite the fact that child abuse and neglect investigators in the state have some of the nation's heaviest caseloads. In a survey of 27 states, the federal government ranked Nevada as the state with the sixth highest number of child abuse or neglect cases per investigator and seventh highest in the number of children assigned to each investigator. In 2000 Nevada investigators handled 113 investigations compared with an average of 73 among states surveyed, and they handled 181 children, 51 more than average.
Clark County had an estimated 45 child protective service investigators in 2000 and 47 this year, officials said. Those numbers are estimates because some supervisors also are investigators, some of the investigators are in temporary positions and some are part-time investigators who perform other tasks, officials said.
Clark County Family Court Judge Gerald Hardcastle said heavy caseloads have plagued Nevada's system for years.
"It has always been a funding issue," Hardcastle said. "We're just growing so fast." Becker said: "Caseworkers are doing the best they can but they're just overworked. They get burned out and tired. They work 12-hour days with little appreciation or money."
The nonprofit Children's Advocacy Alliance, a local organization formed to fight for improvements in the way Nevada handles abused and neglected children, remains one of the sharpest critics of the system. Alliance President Donna Coleman praised the quality of the county's child protective investigators but said their caseloads often force them to concentrate only on the worst cases.
The state "should be investigating more cases," Coleman said. "I have no faith in the numbers of abuse and neglect. I believe there is a lot of underreporting and a lot of reporting that doesn't get investigated."
A combination of problems
One problem confronted by caseworkers is that there are no specific legal definitions of child abuse and neglect, according to Edward Cotton, Nevada Division of Child and Family Services administrator. Because Nevada's law is vague, Cotton said that what may be considered abuse in one jurisdiction may not be deemed abuse in another.
In one case -- he declined to name the jurisdiction -- a person called a child abuse hotline to complain that a 9-year-old child had been struck in the face by an adult and then pushed into the house. Cotton said that the jurisdiction declined to investigate because the caller was too far away to prove the child was bruised. He said other jurisdictions might have launched an investigation. "I came up with the idea of establishing a central hotline for counties to use, but there was not a lot of interest in doing that because of county differences and the notion that there should be local control," Cotton said. "But we are starting a pilot hotline involving four rural counties."
A hotline isn't working well in Clark County, however, Coleman said. It has been so understaffed that callers sometimes are left on hold for up to 40 minutes, she said.
"We shouldn't be calling it a hotline," Coleman said. Klein-Rothschild, who became county's Family Services director last year, agreed that the hotline had staffing problems but said those problems are being addressed.
"The county is in the process of looking at the allocation of current staff," she said.
The problems in Southern Nevada are made worse by a unique and problematic split, or bifurcated, system in which Clark County takes the children out of the home and provides temporary shelter, only to transfer them to the state-run foster care system.
This increases the chance that children needing help will linger in the system longer than necessary or fail to receive proper attention, many say.
"If we could get the bifurcated system undone," Hardcastle said, "we could then focus on some of these other issues."
Las Vegas attorney Ishi Kunin, who handles guardianship cases for the county and state on a pro bono basis, said she believes the relatively high number of area abuse cases might have something to do with the transient nature of Southern Nevada. With so many parents moving here to look for jobs, some put their children in harm's way by allowing them to remain unsupervised at home or leaving them with strangers.
One recent example ended with police killing a man in the front yard of a southwest valley home after he allegedly held seven children hostage with a sawed-off shotgun. The children's mother told officers she had known the man for about two weeks and he was baby-sitting because she didn't have anyone else to watch the children for her, police said.
"People come here looking to make a fortune and a lot of them don't have family support to help them with their kids, and that's when abuse can occur," Becker said. "We need to get more programs to help these parents, but we don't have the workers to do it."
Role of relatives
One area of potential improvement involves guardianships, which typically involve relatives willing to house an abused or neglected child. The 2003 Legislature approved Assembly Bill 273, which allows county or state child welfare agencies to petition juvenile courts to establish a guardian rather than transferring the case to a guardianship court.
One innovative idea Clark County took from the Children's Advocacy Alliance is a "due diligence" program in which attempts are made to locate relatives of abused or neglected children lingering in the child protective system. The goal is to place the child with a willing relative through guardianship or adoption rather than have the child remain in foster care.
In one case, Coleman said a 9-month-old child abandoned in Clark County was adopted by an aunt in Florida. The county found the aunt by tracking down the infant's parents' former home address in El Paso, Texas, where the niece had also abandoned a 2-year-old child.
Child protective officials in El Paso told the local office that the aunt had adopted the 2-year-old. When the county contacted the aunt, she also agreed to adopt the infant.
But Kunin said she doesn't believe caseworkers use the due diligence office as often as they should to track relatives. The failure to spend enough time tracking relatives, combined with the heavy caseloads that child protective workers face, contribute to the length of time it takes to terminate parental rights, Kunin said.
The length of time taken to terminate parental rights is seen by child advocates as a key statistic because in cases where it is impractical to return the child to his natural parents, it is better to get him settled with a permanent, loving family as soon as possible.
Federal law is forcing Nevada to work toward speedier terminations of parental rights, an improvement that child advocates applaud because it means children who need new homes have a better chance at getting them sooner, they say.
Federal statistics indicated that in 2000 only four states took longer on average than Nevada to terminate parental rights. Nevada, at about 24 months, exceeded the national average by eight months. That meant that foster children lingered in the system without a permanent home longer than most of their peers elsewhere.
"We have to be cautious about termination of parental rights," Hardcastle said. "There's no doubt we take too long, but we've always said in Nevada that termination of parental rights is a big deal." After all, he noted, the Nevada Supreme Court in prior rulings has likened the termination of parental rights to the "capital punishment of domestic law."
The state was able to reduce its average time for termination to 19.9 months in 2001 thanks, in large part, to the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997. That law requires a child's first permanency hearing to occur within 12 months of a child's removal from a home.
Implementation of the plan may be extended beyond a year for special circumstances such as a child who is to be returned home after a parent completes drug abuse treatment. Cotton said the law has forced Nevada to move more swiftly toward resolving a child's status.
"We've had to have quicker court hearings to show that we've made reasonable efforts to find permanent homes for these kids," Cotton said.
But he also said Nevada was slower to react than many larger states, which were under greater pressure to find permanency because they had more children in foster care.
On a positive note, Coleman said the state has shown improvement in the number of adoptions, thanks in part to an advertising campaign funded by the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, which is named after the late founder of Wendy's, the fast-food chain. Nevada had the 41st highest number of adoptions in 2000 -- 231 -- despite being the 35th most populous state. But in the fiscal year that ended in June 2002, the state had 270 adoptions.
Las Vegas foster parent Christall Rotta said when she and her husband adopted a foster child, however, it took six months longer than necessary because the caseworker had other priorities.
Rotta said children could be moved more quickly toward permanent homes if caseworkers could spend more time with each child.
"That would allow them (caseworkers) to make better decisions on whether to place the child back in a home," Rotta said. "A lot of times they make bad decisions and the child" goes back to a biological parent only to wind up "back in the (state) system in two to three months."
Foster care problems
Rotta and others familiar with Nevada's system say caseload problems also extend to foster care workers employed by the Child and Family Services. State workers now average 31 cases each. If lawmakers approve Guinn's proposed budget for the next biennium the ratio would decrease. Guinn's budget adds enough caseworkers -- including 15 in Las Vegas -- to lower the the statewide ratio to 28 cases per caseworker.
But Hardcastle said a ratio of no more than 22 to 1 is ideal, and the Child Welfare League of America recommends a ratio of 17 to 1. Because individual cases often involve multiple siblings, it is not uncommon for caseworkers to oversee at least 60 children at a time.
"Because of the caseloads it can take children a long time to get what they need," Becker said. "If a child needs counseling, it could take three to four weeks just to initiate the paperwork and then there's a three- to four-month wait for services. That's a long time for a foster parent to deal with behavioral problems."
Rotta, a Las Vegas foster parent who also has handled more than 450 children in 10 years, including those with special medical needs, said it once took a caseworker a year to visit a child.
"I've found myself calling the caseworker and asking them when they're coming to visit," she said. "One year was ridiculous for a medical child. That caseworker is no longer at DCFS.
"I've had caseworkers say, 'You know, Christall, I have a lot of kids in my caseload and I'm not worried about you.' But they should worry about every child no matter what home they're in."