Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 | 2 a.m.
- If you suspect a child is being harmed, contact the Clark County child abuse and neglect hotline at 702-399-0081. It’s staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In this room, with colorful carpet and whimsical shapes hanging from the ceiling, the children are waiting. They just might not know it.
A boy strums a toy guitar, confusion etched on his face when no sound echoes. A toddler with braided pigtails drags a plastic dollhouse to an open spot and peers inside. Near her, a preschool-age boy sits at a miniature table and draws.
Tears erupt in the distance, followed by a soothing voice telling the little one, “You’re OK.”
This isn’t a daycare, school or a waiting room at a doctor’s office. What brings together these children is an opportunity to see a loved one.
“Hey mister,” a charismatic woman says to the little boy drawing. “Mom’s here. You ready? Want to bring your picture?”
The boy and his two younger siblings follow Kisha Earhart, a senior family services specialist, to an adjacent room, where his mom and grandmother greet them. This meeting is a supervised visit between mom and children at the visitation center for Clark County’s Department of Family Services. Last month, the department removed the three youngsters from their mother’s care after a baby also residing in the home ended up at the hospital with a broken limb and internal injuries.
Who was responsible for the baby’s injuries remains a mystery: The four adults living at the home have neither admitted responsibility nor pointed fingers at the guilty party. So the stalemate continues, and the children stay in foster care.
Enter Earhart, a member of Child Protective Services’ five-and-under team. It’s her job to investigate allegations of child abuse or neglect against, arguably, the community’s most vulnerable population — children 5 years old and younger who can’t always verbalize what’s happened to them.
That’s why most calls she receives are labeled “Priority One,” meaning she has three hours to respond and make contact. Sometimes that means removing children from the home, leading to supervised visits such as this one.
“We still have the same problem we had when we first met,” Earhart tells the mother.
Earhart will reword that sentence at least three times over the course of 15 minutes, trying in vain to drive home her point to the mother: No answers, no kids.
“We have a baby with very significant injuries, and we have no explanation,” Earhart says. “It all comes down to: How can we ensure these guys are safe with you?”
Earhart motions to the three little ones in the room. The oldest is serving his grandma a pretend meal he cooked.
Earhart begins most workdays by 7 a.m., tackling paperwork inside the small office she shares with another member of the five-and-under team.
The Wyoming native has been a member of this specialized CPS team since 2004. She once tried being a supervisor and couldn’t handle it — too much time behind a desk. The fieldwork called her back in less than a year.
“When you’re in school for social work, you’re convinced you’re going to change the world,” said Earhart, who earned her master’s in social work from UNLV.
The reality might be a tad less glamorous. She keeps rain boots in her office, ready for duty if she must enter a home crawling with bugs or worse.
She has seen emaciated babies, bruised and scratched infants and even a child covered with bite marks. Those are the cases that left lasting mental images. But, as a member of the five-and-under team, Earhart also responds to any near-fatality or fatality call involving a child, including accidental death cases such as drownings.
In mid-August, there was particularly bad spate: three babies dead in one week because of unsafe sleeping conditions, a preventable accident.
“You walk into those situations, and they’re emotional,” said Lisa Ruiz-Lee, director of Clark County’s Department of Family Services, which oversees Child Protective Services. “You have all the possibilities of a child destroyed in a single second.”
Most cases begin with a phone call to the agency from someone who has seen something that just doesn’t seem right. About 70 percent of those calls come from people — teachers, doctors, daycare providers and the like — required to report suspicions of abuse or neglect, officials said.
Calls to the hotline have been steadily increasing, from 33,735 in 2010 to 35,016 in 2012, according to department data.
Not all calls are about abuse or neglect, but the 35,000-some calls last year generated about 8,900 CPS investigations, which can be lengthy and complex journeys to determine the best interests of the children.
Family Services projects a 4 percent spike in new investigations and a 13 percent increase in the number of new children seen by the department by the end of this year, according to department data.
Authorities concede it’s difficult to pin down an exact cause for the steady uptick of reports, but Las Vegas’ sluggish economy is no help.
“When families are under stress, they do things they would not normally do,” Ruiz-Lee said.
When that happens, it sets the clock in motion — for both investigators and parents.
Per a statewide policy, caseworkers on the five-and-under team have roughly 45 days to complete an investigation. If investigators substantiate allegations, families can volunteer to accept services as part of a case plan, but if that’s not feasible for a variety of safety-related reasons, the cases wind up in court.
And if parents lose custody of their children, the onus is on them to remedy the situation in a timely manner. Federal law mandates that states must file to terminate parental rights if a child is in foster care for 15 of the previous 21 months, Ruiz-Lee said.
That’s not the end anyone hopes to see, especially the children.
“At the end of the day, they are still their parents, and they love their parents,” Earhart said.
It’s a warm and sunny Wednesday in September, and Earhart is at the wheel of a white Dodge Caravan loaded with six car seats, two for each weight class.
She already has visited two schools to interview children about a chemical burn on a toddler’s hand. The adult caregivers gave her their version of the story, so she needed get the scoop from children who witnessed the incident before making another home visit.
But that home visit would be postponed. Her phone rings at 11:13 a.m. while she’s stopped at red light in the northeast valley.
“The rest of our day just got canceled,” she says.
Today, Earhart is the on-duty investigator for any emergency calls. She pulls into a parking lot and calls back her supervisor, firing away questions and jotting down answers in her trusty notebook.
Where’s the kiddo at?
What’s the dad’s name?
What’s the mom’s name?
What’s her address?
And she stays home with the kids?...
This is what they know: A father reported a suspicious burn on his toddler’s bottom, which the boy’s mother claimed happened when he fell on a hot kitchen appliance. Dad doubts it.
Earhart makes a pit stop at her office to grab the essentials: a case file, scale, camera, new notebook and some water. It could be a long afternoon.
The list doesn’t include any evidence of personal protection. CPS investigators go alone and unarmed, unless a situation arouses enough concern to request police backup.
Presentation is everything, says Earhart, a slender woman with a sunny smile and no hint of shyness.
No one likes to see a CPS investigator knocking on his or her door. But when parents encounter Earhart, she’s usually rocking dressy, skinny jeans and fashionable heels — a professional look that’s more cordial than intimidating.
“We don’t know what’s true and what’s false,” she says en route to the mother’s house. “Anyone can make allegations.”
In this case, a Metro Police detective and officer meet her at the two-story house to conduct a joint investigation. As they knock, the garage slowly opens and a woman emerges.
They follow her inside.
Six days later, Earhart is picking up where she left off before the emergency call thwarted her plans. She’s visiting the home of the boy with the chemical burn on his hand.
The case doesn’t appear to involve malice. The boy’s caregiver scrubbed his hand too hard after a dark substance stained his palm.
Earhart’s checking in as she prepares to wrap up the case. The toddler grins impishly as he shows her a toy light saber.
“He’s really thrived here,” Earhart tells the woman caring for him. “He looks really good.”
Nothing seems amiss. The boy’s speech is improving, his hand is healing and he bears no signs of other injuries. The woman caring for him appears relieved as Earhart gives the positive assessment.
“Let’s high-five,” Earhart tells the boy. “Good job.”
It’s back to the Dodge Caravan. More stops on Earhart’s checklist await.
The five-and-under team, which is broken into two units for scheduling purposes, has about 100 cases at any given moment. Of those, Earhart is investigating 11 cases, all carrying different demands this week.
A trip to the coroner’s office. A court hearing. Discussions with client’s lawyers. An interview with the father who reported a burn on his son’s butt. Meetings with doctors to review case evidence. A jailhouse trip to inform a father his kids are in foster care. More home and school visits.
Somewhere in there, she must log her notes into a statewide computer program that tracks cases. Anything highlighted in blue has been entered.
“If the notebook got lost, I’d be in pretty big trouble,” Earhart says. “It’s my little bible over here.”
The job’s never-ending to-do list caters to adrenaline junkies, and Earhart fits the bill. She takes spinning classes to exercise, but she can’t handle yoga — it’s too mellow.
Earhart is also a mother, which allows her to feel both empathy and outrage on the job.
“I think it makes you more aware of not making a big deal of little things,” says Earhart, whose son is now 18. “Every parent gets irritated. I think it comes down to the reaction.”
That’s why she tries to reinforce good parenting while also not being overly judgmental. Everyone has a right to parent his or her own way as long as the children are not being harmed, she says.
Making that determination hinges on the investigative work. In the case of the child with the burned bottom, Earhart measured the kitchen appliance and the burn mark to compare size.
Earhart and a consulting doctor ultimately conclude the boy’s injury — as weird as it sounded — was likely a freak accident, not the result of abuse or neglect.
The child can remain in his mother’s care. Investigators cross their fingers this is their last encounter with the mother.
“There is a lot of art and science to the work we do,” Ruiz-Lee said. “There is no crystal ball that helps to tell us what’s going to happen in the life of a family.”
But Earhart doesn’t need a crystal ball to see the immediate future of the three little siblings who visited with their mom and grandma this morning.
Until investigators can determine which adult in the home abused the other baby, the woman will not receive custody of her children.
On this day in mid-September, it’s still a waiting game.
“We don’t want to see them grow up in our system,” Earhart says. “The light’s not on right now, but hopefully we’ll get there.”