In tears, the mother of a newborn begged a Clark County Family Court judge for a chance to prove she and her husband can be good parents.
“Our goal here is not to break up families,” Family Court Judge Frank Sullivan said Thursday during a 72-hour preliminary protective hearing to determine whether the child should go home or remain in protective custody.
The couple’s baby was scheduled to be released from the hospital this week and was going to be taken to a relative’s home. The parents told Sullivan that they have complied with all the requirements the Clark County Department of Family Services set to regain custody of their newborn and older child in foster care.
In recent years, Nevada has placed an emphasis on speeding up the placement of foster children into permanent homes, which can mean returning them to their parents, placing them with a guardian or matching them with an adoptive family. In 2010, there was a backlog of about 500 such children, with the median time for adoptions at 36.3 months, Sullivan said. The situation worsened under a lack of judicial resources and stalled termination of parental rights cases.
But the time it takes for courts in Nevada to return children to their homes or find a safe, permanent placement for them has decreased since then, according to the Nevada Supreme Court. The median time for adoptions fell to 30.7 months in 2012.
The national median time for adoptions in 2012 was 32.4 months.
In Nevada, the time for permanent placements decreased to about 890 days in 2013 from about 945 in 2011. State data for 2013 was not complete.
The court attributes the improvement to the Court Improvement Program, a federally funded program to improve family court processes through data and collaboration with child welfare agencies, said Katherine Malzahn-Bass, the state program’s coordinator. The program is sponsored by the Nevada Supreme Court, with all district courts participating.
The program received three grants totaling $396,388 last federal fiscal year, ending Sept. 30, Malzahn-Bass said. The money was used for a range of services, including data collection and training for court personnel.
Before the issue of permanent placements hit the radar in 2010, Clark County Family Court and the Clark County Department of Family Services had no joint plan in place to handle the cases before them, Sullivan said. There was no way to measure outcomes.
“You can’t improve your system if you don’t know what it looks like,” Sullivan said.
Each of the state’s 10 judicial districts established a Community Improvement Council to address the issue. Sullivan has been leading the Eighth Judicial District’s council in Clark County, but Family Court judges Robert Teuton and Cynthia Giuliani also are involved.
Family Services has increased focus on adoptions in the past three years, with 718 in 2011, 603 in 2012 and 573 in 2013.
Family reunifications have gone up by 40 percent in the past two years, according to Kristi Jourdan, Family Services spokeswoman. In 2011, there were 1,096 family reunifications, which increased to 1,247 in 2012 and 1,571 in 2013.
“Are we making progress? Yes,” Sullivan said. “Are we satisfied? No.”
Family Services averaged 247 cases per month involving removal of children from their homes in 2013, with a total of 2,961 such cases, according to Jourdan. The number of children involved was 2,852. A child could have been removed from his home multiple times.
Some of the efforts now are to focus on children who are coming into the system.
One of the goals of the Court Improvement Program was to introduce a new child welfare safety model, according to the Nevada Supreme Court.
The new model, instead of focusing on parental conduct, centers on the safety of the child — whether there is present or impending danger — their vulnerability and the protective capacity, if there’s a protective adult in the house, Sullivan explained.
“We are going to try to change the culture,” he said. “It takes time to change that culture.”
This model gives judges a way to make timely, thorough and fair decisions for families.
“They don’t all need to come to court,” Sullivan said.
The practice leads to fewer children being removed from their homes, Sullivan said.
The courts now have data showing the number of cases each judge has been assigned and whether targets are being met for 72-hour hearings, 60-day child removal hearings, six-month review hearings and 12-month annual hearings.
“So I can really dig deep,” Sullivan said as he looked through a stack of documentation.
But there’s still more work to be done.
“If we fail one child, that’s a failure on us,” Sullivan said.
Barbara Buckley, executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, said improvements have been made. The Adoption Assessment Day, started as a joint effort between the Legal Aid Center and Family Court in the aftermath of the 2010 system backlog, also has helped reduce adoption times. Every 60 days, 50 children who haven’t been adopted are identified to see why they’re still without permanent homes.
“However, there’s still major problems in the child welfare system,” Buckley said.
For example, children continue to be brought into the system when they don’t need to be in the system, she said. That ends up “clogging” the system for those who really need it.
If a parent leaves an 8-year-old home alone, the child shouldn’t be removed, she said. Instead, measures should be taken to monitor the child and provide parenting skills training for the parent.
“The child shouldn’t be removed only to be returned in four months,” Buckley said. “The focus needs to be on the risks and safety, not just punishing the parent. You need to remember that you are punishing the child.”
The Legal Aid Center represents about 2,000 children in foster care.
Last year, Family Services entered a $3 million contract with Action for Child Protection for the implementation of the new safety model for foster children that Sullivan supports. Training for the new model began with intake employees, who are now working under the new model.
Child Protective Services and permanency workers also are going through training, according to Jourdan.
All court personnel will go through training in mid-March. The training on the safety model is expected to be completed in 2016.
“There is more accountability around making sure staff truly understand the information and can demonstrate knowledge of the material, which focuses on stronger information collection and decision-making around child safety,” Jourdan said.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0440.