In Nevada, it's never the right time to do our best to protect neglected kids


In another state, legislation such as Senate Bill 292 wouldn't be controversial. It would be old news.

Given Nevada's juvenile justice traditions of children-as-chattel and boot-strap-slim funding, a law adopting uniform representation of all children in abuse, neglect, and custody proceedings is more than a hot-button issue. Now that the state's finances have crumbled, a law that would mandate using more "child's attorneys" is probably considered an ineffective use of precious tax dollars.

After all, it is reasoned, attorneys cost money, and this is no time to go spending a few hundred thousand dollars a year extra to provide lawyers for little ones. And hasn't this issue been high on the agenda of Assembly Speaker and Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada Executive Director Barbara Buckley? (For the record, Buckley's legislative colleague Sen. Terry Care is listed as the bill's author.)

Two years ago, when times were technically flush, the current governor rushed to thrust millions into the hands of favored charities.

In previous years, there have been millions for employee raises and health care, as well as new buildings. There's even been enough to hand art tax breaks and "green" tax dodges to casino billionaires.

But in Nevada, it's never the right time to do our best to protect abused and neglected children.

The current law enables a judge to appoint one of a handful of child advocate lawyers in addition to the volunteers from the overwhelmed Court Appointed Special Advocate office to see to a young person's best interests in legal proceedings. By law, only CASA is required.

In essence, SB292 ups the ante for Nevada. It creates a system in which "child's attorneys" and "best interests" lawyers become the standard offering.

The CASA volunteers, according to the bill draft I've reviewed, are still an important part of the process. Not only can a judge still request a CASA representative to stand by a child, but they may also be assigned by the court to assist the attorneys.

Steve Hiltz, who directs the Children's Attorneys Project for the Legal Aid Center and would see his office expanded if the bill was passed and funded, says he sees the CASA program continuing to play a large role in the process. Expanding the role of trained attorneys wouldn't put CASA out of business -- far from it.

Hiltz points to his representation of Brittney Bergeron Himel in a protracted parental rights termination case as an example of a CASA, in that instance Kim Coats, and an attorney working well together.

"We didn't always agree about everything, but she was just exceptional," he says.

But one critic with knowledge of the CASA program says, "This proposed law is a bad idea on a number of levels: It cripples a good law that is better, cheaper and that has never been enforced adequately to create an unfunded mandate that actually provides less service while costing the taxpayers more money. ... Nevada needs to enforce this good law, not cripple it."

That's accurate. Nevada doesn't enforce the statutes on the books. That's what makes SB292 seem like a futile exercise.

Hiltz, meanwhile, believes the change for Nevada is long past due.

"Only nine years ago," Hiltz reminds me, "no kid had a lawyer. To have a lawyer for every kid, most jurisdictions have that."

Jurisdictions outside Nevada, he means.

Even if SB292 were to pass, it will most assuredly have to be watered down. Neither the state nor Clark County has the financial means to support a sweeping improvement in a system that has had its share of tragedies over the years.

From a fiscal impact standpoint, the bill couldn't have come along at a worse time. As such, it's an unfunded mandate. To rush it into law without substantive changes and substantial inter-governmental cooperation might do more harm than good.

Then again, the system is used to failing its legal mandates to children. By law, each child is supposed to have a CASA readily available, and for years I've heard there are rarely enough trained advocates to go around.

"The court doesn't provide a CASA on every case," Hiltz says. "The statute does require it. Federal funding also requires it."

When it comes to advocacy for abused and neglected children in Nevada, reality requires a strong stomach.

John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith/.

 

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