Monday, Aug. 8, 2011 | 5:17 p.m.
Tom Morton, who was hired five years ago by Clark County commissioners to save a Family Services Department bedeviled by foster care abuses and a neglected-child center that had turned into a warehouse for children, is leaving.
A county spokesman confirmed his resignation, effective Aug. 19.
His tenure brought mixed reviews. He was lauded for getting new standards and procedures on the books that, as one person put it, bring Clark County “into the 21st century.” But others say he lacked the communication skills to be an effective leader and to ensure those policies and procedures were followed.
“I wish him well,” said Commission Chairwoman Susan Brager, who learned of the resignation Monday.
Rory Reid, a former county commissioner who focused on improving the child care system and worked closely with Morton, said the resignation “is not good news for Clark County.”
“He came when Child Haven (center for neglected children) was bursting at the seams and kids were sleeping on cots in the gym,” Reid said. “Of course, he had his critics — you always have them when there’s a transition. But from everything I could tell, he was a professional with extensive knowledge and experience who improved the system and made the lives of troubled children better. I was honored to work with him.”
Morton was given the job almost immediately after his predecessor, Susan Klein-Rothschild, resigned. As a consultant with 30 years experience working in child welfare, Morton was credited with helping turn Alabama’s child welfare system into a national model.
The county put together this list of changes during Morton’s tenure:
• Admissions to Child Haven have decreased 93 percent, to 201 in 2010 compared with 2,918 in 2006.
• Family Services has opened a child/family therapeutic visitation center, which has assisted more than 150,000 visitors since its inception in March 2008.
• Through June 30, more than 1,700 children have received medical services through the Positively Kids program, which was implemented in October. The most recent accomplishment is the opening of an on-campus medical clinic.
• Since 2006, the number of children adopted each year has increased 49 percent, to 442 children in 2010 compared with 297 children in 2006. For calendar year 2011, the department is on pace to finalize more than 630 adoptions by the end of the year.
• Since 2006, the overall number of licensed foster homes has increased 75 percent, from 685 homes to 1,200 homes today.
Donna Coleman, founder of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance, was never happy with Morton’s hiring. In 2006, she criticized the county for hiring Morton — who had been a consultant to the county — rather than conducting a nationwide search to fill the job. In 2005, the county had retained Morton’s Child Welfare Institute to examine the deaths of 11 children in the county’s child protective services. Coleman was critical that the review did not find the county negligent in any of the deaths.
Coleman’s criticism of Morton stems from what she saw as his lack of interpersonal skills.
“That’s crucial in a business where interpersonal skills are everything when you’re dealing with lives and delicate issues and what’s happening with children,” said Coleman, who has been an executive recruiter for 35 years. “I don’t believe he ever really had a connection with children, family, workers, advocates, educators or the media. He alienated a lot of people.”
Morton took a job in 2006 that few would have envied.
In December 2005, an independent panel was reviewing the deaths of 79 children between 2001 and 2004 that might have been related to abuse or neglect. In 2006, the National Center for Youth Law filed a federal lawsuit alleging the county’s child welfare system endangered children. After the center’s lawsuit was rejected in federal court last year, it appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In June 2010, the Clark County district attorney’s office produced 82 cases of child abuse and neglect in which it claimed it had to intervene because Family Services wasn’t protecting the children. (In December, the county issued a 235-page report that said most of the cases occurred before the 2008 adoption of new policies and procedures; more case worker training by prosecutors and police was also begun.)
In August 2010, a former child welfare administrator told the Sun she was forced to lie about the number of children at Child Haven to make it appear Family Services was doing a better job of placing kids in foster care. But Morton countered that moving children into foster homes was more efficient due to better policies but also because Family Services had doubled the number of foster homes over four years.
Bill Grimm, senior counsel for the National Center for Youth Law, said he welcomed Family Services policy changes.
“That was his forte, bringing the policies of the agency into line with well accepted standards of child welfare,” Grimm said.
On the other hand, like others, Grimm criticizes Morton’s style.
“I have to tell you, I don’t think his heart was ever in the job and I don’t think there’s been a great deal of leadership,” Grimm added. “If there’s not leadership, if you don’t nurture, all those children who need care suffer.”
Morton, who was not at work Monday, could not be reached for comment.