Las Vegas Sun

April 24, 2017

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More kids are dying across the nation, in Las Vegas

Child abuse and neglect are taking a growing toll. But no one knows why.

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Sam Morris

Supervisor Chris Carrell, left, and Brad Coffey, a senior investigator for Clark County, deal with the abuse and neglect that have killed 37 children this year.

Twice as many children have died in Clark County this year from abuse and neglect as in all of last year, and officials worry the number could be triple that for 2008 by year’s end.

In Reno and surrounding Washoe County, the number of children who have died from abuse and neglect has also risen sharply over last year.

In the rest of Nevada and nationwide, the numbers are climbing too, authorities say.

Yet no one agrees on a common explanation for the trend — not child-welfare officials in Las Vegas and Carson City, nor experts at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, nor child advocacy groups across the country.

Some experts note that states such as Nevada with dwindling resources have fewer child protection programs.

The state Division of Child and Family Services has been criticized for egregious child deaths in past years, and state officials warned this year that projected budget cuts would only hamper their efforts.

Some experts blame the failing economy. More people out of work has meant more stress, and officials say more homes are teeming with frustration and anger.

Others blame drugs, poverty and risque lifestyles, and the ignorance of parents, pointing to the eight children who accidentally drowned or were shot to death in Clark County this summer. Some call the dramatic increase a statistical fluke.

Tom Morton, director of the Clark County Department of Family Services, said he has about 100 investigators who look into all kinds of child abuse. But 18 additional positions remain frozen because of budget trims, and that leaves just two five-man teams to investigate fatalities.

Most abused and neglected children are hurt by first-time offenders — parents or a relative or a new boyfriend.

To prevent deaths, Morton said, supervisors closely review the work of investigators. When a third complaint is lodged against a family — for drugs or an unkempt home or an unattended child — it is assigned to yet another investigator for a “fresh set of eyes,” he said.

But, Morton conceded, “when you go and look at the circumstances of each death, you don’t see a pattern emerge.” Every death is different, every family unique, and Morton said his office must largely rely on tips from the public. There is little his investigators can do to stop a toddler from wandering into a bedroom and placing a plastic bag over his head.

“We don’t have cameras in everyone’s home running 24/7,” he said.

So far this year 37 children — persons under the age of 18 — have died in Clark County from abuse or neglect, according to state records. The deaths of another eight children remain unsolved. For all of 2008, 18 children died of abuse or neglect, with a 19th death still under review.

Seven other children almost died from abuse or neglect this year, and their cases are listed as “near fatalities.” There were only three near fatalities in 2008 in the county.

The records also show that county officials investigated complaints and made home visits before 20 of the children died this year, a percentage comparable to last year’s.

Death investigations are prompted by allegations of abuse or neglect. Some escalate to criminal prosecutions, and parents and others are arrested. Officials are still waiting for results from toxicology tests and coroner’s findings in other deaths.

Authorities also have ruled that sometimes adults should not be legally blamed for child neglect. A mother did not mean to fall asleep on the sofa with a new infant, suffocating the baby. A father at a back yard barbecue had momentarily turned his head when his child fell into the pool.

Brad Coffey, a senior child fatality investigator for Clark County, and his colleagues are taking on 10 new abuse and neglect cases each month, and he is at a loss to explain the increase. He has investigated past complaints, only to be called out again, sometimes in the middle of the night, or on holidays or a weekend, when a child has died. “It can be overwhelming,” he said. “It’s very emotionally draining.”

Increases elsewhere are just as perplexing. In Washoe County, 16 children have died this year from abuse or neglect; there were only three in all of 2008. There have been three near fatalities in Washoe this year, but none in 2008.

In the rest of the state, seven children have died so far this year compared with only four in 2008. There have been no near fatalities so far this year, but one in 2008.

Where to start in addressing the growing problem?

Chrystal Main, a state child and family advocate in Carson City, said her agency would like to teach more first-time mothers not to sleep on the sofa with their newborns and more school children not to hurt themselves at home.

But, she said, “I look at the budget and it’s tough for everyone in this state right now, very, very tough. We are extremely under-resourced.”

In Washington in April, federal health officials reported that 1,760 children died during a 12-month period ending Oct. 1, 2007 (their latest statistics), up from 1,530 for the same period the year before.

Michael Petit, director of Every Child Matters, a not-for-profit child advocacy group in Washington, said his organization last year ranked Nevada 43rd among the states where children are least vulnerable to harm. It also put Nevada at 44th for per capita child welfare expenditures.

Petit cited dwindling funding in Nevada and a transient lifestyle in Las Vegas.

“It’s dismal. Nevada is one of the toughest states to be in if you need help,” said Petit, formerly health and human services commissioner in Maine. “Every single social service exists in Nevada, but it’s just not up to scale.

“The state does not distinguish itself given the wealth that it has.”

Anita Light, a child and family advocate for another Washington-based nonprofit organization, the American Public Human Services Association, was less critical, stressing that deaths are increasing elsewhere too. She mentioned Michigan, Ohio and Oregon as states with “fairly high unemployment” rates and rising child fatalities.

“Other states have these kind of stresses,” she said, “and public agencies need to be paying more attention.”

Among the child deaths due to abuse or neglect in Clark County this year:

• Five-year-old Harlee N. Whitmire died Feb. 15 from morphine and cocaine intoxication. The investigation turned up missing medications in the house. “The parent last saw the child that night asleep, breathing and snoring,” state records say. “When the parent checked the child again several hours later, she was cold, stiff and had a substance coming out of her mouth.”

County investigators had visited the house four times from 2005 to last year on complaints of neglect concerning Harlee. But allegations of neglect in the child’s death were ruled “unsubstantiated.”

• On March 2, Joseph D. Duhaylungsod “ingested grout cleaner” stored in a soda bottle that he stumbled upon at home, according to state documents. The 3-year-old died four hours later. “The bottle with the grout cleaner was an anomaly,” the state said, because other poisons and cleaning supplies were kept in a locked closet. The family was referred for counseling.

• Two-month-old Asia Grace Robinson died March 17 after being born 25 weeks premature, weighing 1 pound 4 ounces and testing positive for cocaine. Her mother, a known drug user and ex-convict, tested positive for cocaine and marijuana and was arrested. Her early delivery was a “direct result” of her using illicit drugs, records say.

• Adan Adrian Madrid, 3, suffocated after placing a plastic bag over his head in bed on May 26. He was found by his foster mother, who was not prosecuted. The boy had been placed in her care after numerous allegations of past abuse and neglect connected with the boy’s natural mother’s drug problems.

• Five-year-old D’Amber Myles, who suffered from cerebral palsy, drowned in the bathtub on June 30. Her mother was charged with second-degree murder and child neglect.

• Giovanni Bass-Kopystenski, an autistic 5-year-old, accidentally shot and killed himself July 21 after finding a gun in his father’s car. The family had been investigated two years earlier for neglect; this time the father was arrested on a child neglect charge.

• On Aug. 22, Arayah Booker, 26 days old, suffocated on the couch. Her mother had fallen asleep on the sofa with the baby, and woke to find the infant wedged between cushions. Otherwise, “there were no signs of abuse or trauma to the child,” the records state. She was not prosecuted.

Coffey, the local senior investigator, says confronting grieving parents and removing other children from the homes is “very delicate.” His supervisor, Chris Carrell, has been in his shoes. She remembers those late-night calls upon the death of a child.

“It is Christmas Eve or it’s midnight and you walk into these homes,” she said. “When the child is 4 or under, it is particularly devastating.”

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