Las Vegas Sun

January 21, 2018

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Allegation claims Child Haven numbers falsified

Former county administrator says she was asked to alter documents on how long children spend at center


Sam Morris

A scene outside Child Haven, a shelter for abused and neglected children. Family Services denies it is moving children out of the facility too quickly.

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.”

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