A copy of Child Haven's new state license is taped to Lou Palma's office door.
Those who fail to notice it on their way in to see Clark County Family Services' manager of shelter services can't possibly miss the original: It's perched on the corner of his desk, framed in black wood.
Palma treats it as a hard-won prize earned after months of collaborating with staff from the Nevada Department of Child and Family Services. Guidelines had to be created, standards had to be set and inspections had to be passed before Child Haven could, for the first time, operate as a state-licensed emergency shelter for abused and neglected children.
"It was a difficult process," Palma said. "But now a lot of people know what we've known all along. We're providing a good quality of care."
The state license represents Clark County's on-time compliance with a 2007 legislative mandate intended to create a new level of oversight and accountability at the shelter.
Lawmakers put the requirement in place after child advocacy groups began lobbying against prolonged stays in group care for young children.
The mandate also was driven by Child Haven's struggle with crowded conditions. In 2006, space at the shelter was in such short supply that infants in protective custody had to stay at hospital nurseries until they could be placed elsewhere.
Young boys at Child Haven were sleeping in beds set up in the facility's gym.
At the time, as many as 164 children were residents of Child Haven until they could either return home or enter foster care.
Under the new license, Child Haven's maximum capacity is 96. Palma doubts the population will near that any time soon. As of Friday, Child Haven's population was 33.
"I don't think we're going to hit the point where we have to turn anybody away," Palma said.
The numbers have people asking Clark County Director of Family Services Tom Morton where the children have gone. Morton has a three-part answer to the question.
Child Haven's numbers are declining because he's made it a priority to recruit new foster families. In 2007, Morton said, his staff identified 200 new placements for foster children. The goal is to get 300 more.
Family Services also has turned one of the Child Haven cottages into a receiving center. Children who are brought in can be quickly placed with relatives, if any are available.
Fingerprinting can be done on-site, Morton said, a capability Child Haven lacked in the past. That means potential guardians can be cleared to take children in a matter of hours instead of days.
Under the state law, a child does not count as a Child Haven resident until they've been on campus for 24 hours or more.
The third big change was the creation of teams to work more closely with police and to expedite placements. Having staff respond to police call outs is lowering incidents of removal, Morton said. Child protective workers are able to work with law enforcement to determine if a child can remain safely at home or needs to be removed.
If removal is required, the placement team will move quickly to find homes for children taken into protective custody. The teams are available seven days a week, Morton said.
"That's an illustration of what we've been able to do with additional staff," he said.
In the past, Morton said, family services had just one staff member working on placements. Now, the department has 10 professional staff and three clerical workers assigned to the task.
"It was impossible to do this before," Morton said.
The falling population at Child Haven hasn't resulted in layoffs, Palma said. Part-time help is no longer required and full-time staff no longer must work overtime.
Morton said he's also looking at new uses for some of Child Haven's space. The lower occupancy means one of the cottages could be used as a visitation center for parents with children in foster care.
Licensing is a good thing for Child Haven, but the strategies that have led to the reduced population create a new set of concerns for child advocates like Bill Grimm, senior attorney for the National Center for Youth Law.
The California-based not-for-profit now has a lawsuit pending against Clark County and the state alleging that child welfare officials have not protected the health and safety of juveniles in the system.
"Capping the population and setting standards in the absence of having standards in the past is a positive move forward," Grimm said.
But the effect is similar to what happens when you press on a balloon, he said. The section you press on deflates, but additional pressure forces the balloon to swell in other places.
While Child Haven has had problems in the past, the bulk of Clark County's child welfare woes have occurred in foster home settings, Grimm said.
"There's been a lack of support and services for children in foster homes," Grimm said.
As Family Services embarks in this new direction, Grimm said it's vital that the agency provide information to the public on the results.
He said questions include: Are children having success in foster homes, is there a problem with serial placements, are the needs of foster children being met, and are foster care workers seeing them on a regular basis?
"There needs to be more monitoring of children in care," Grimm said.
In that area, the state is doing its part at Child Haven.
Palma said the shelter already has had a post-licensing check.
"Within 48 hours of getting our license, we had our first unannounced inspection by the health department."
Contact reporter Lisa Kim Bach at lbach @reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0287.