Las Vegas Sun

November 17, 2017

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Clark County reviewing 82 cases of potential child harm

Move highlights rift between DA’s office, Family Services

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.”

Sheila Leslie

Sheila Leslie

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.

Chris Giunchigliani

Chris Giunchigliani

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.”

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