One of two state agencies that launched an investigation of Child Haven after five siblings walked out of the emergency shelter last week has concluded that the facility followed protocol in the incident, which led to a Las Vegas police search for the runaways.
“The policies and procedures and practices, as implemented in this instance, were found to be appropriate,” according to a letter sent Friday to Clark County Department of Family Services officials.
Jill Marano, deputy administrator for the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services, which concluded its review of Child Haven, said both the incident and the facility’s policies and procedures were examined. The facility’s policies and procedures are consistent with those of similar emergency shelters for abused and neglected children in Nevada and other states.
But local advocates and county officials still have concerns spawned by the incident that have yet to be addressed.
“It’s good that we have protocols and policies in place that seem to be common throughout the industry,” Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said. “But just because we did that, it shouldn’t stop us from stepping back and saying, ‘Is there something we could do better?’ ”
The state’s child care licensing agency also is investigating the incident.
Demetri Nicholas, 7, Sarah Nicholas, 9, Luchiano Nicholas, 11, Violet Bimbo-Nicholas, 13, and Savannah Nicholas, 14 ran away from Child Haven on June 11. They were found, unharmed, the next day.
It’s never acceptable for a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old to just leave the facility, said Lisa Ruiz-Lee, director of Family Services, which oversees Child Haven. But it wasn’t just a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old involved.
“If we were dealing with just a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old, they would have not walked away,” she said.
The younger children were not within arm’s reach of staff because the older siblings were protecting them, she said. “They had them behind them and were moving at a very fast pace,” Ruiz-Lee said. “They (the staff) weren’t going to have access to the younger children without getting into a physical confrontation.”
A physical altercation started by staff could have turned into abuse, she said.
The group of five siblings took time to plan their escape.
They did it during recreation time, Ruiz-Lee said. “They used that as an opportunity.”
Child Haven buildings have electronically locked doors that require ID badges for entry, but not for exit. Ruiz-Lee said the group waited for someone to open the doors while leaving.
After exiting the facility, the siblings walked through the parking lot toward Pecos Road, she said. Staff followed them to Freedom Park before returning to Child Haven to call law enforcement.
Kristi Jourdan, Family Services spokeswoman, said the staff members involved didn’t have cellphones while pursuing the children.
Ruiz-Lee said children occasionally run away from the emergency shelter. Most of the time, they just want to return home to their parents, regardless of whatever abuse or neglect they have experienced.
But now is the time for a detailed policy review, according to Barbara Buckley, executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. Facilities such as Child Haven must strike a balance between treating child victims of abuse with dignity and keeping them safe — even from themselves.
In this case, Buckley said, the children may have wanted to get away from Child Haven or go back home. But roaming the streets without an adult is not safe.
“Most people think, ‘Oh, you’ve been taken away from an abusive situation. You should be happy,’ ” Buckley said. “It’s not so simple. No one really appreciates what it’s like to lose your home, to lose your school, to get put into a place where everything is different.”
Giunchigliani said she still has unanswered questions. She wants to know what led to the siblings leaving Child Haven and how quickly staff called police. And she wants to see documentation of the incident. She hopes to get answers during today’s commission meeting.
Marano said her agency might conduct a more in-depth, statewide policy review to see whether there are policies that could be implemented to better deal with similar incidents.
“To see if there’s something more concrete that we want to put in place,” she said.
Ruiz-Lee said officials are always open to policy changes and revisions.
The Metropolitan Police Department didn’t have an update on the case Monday.