The Nevada Department of Corrections wants to begin working with state and county child welfare agencies to make sure infants born to inmates don't end up living in unsafe homes or with inappropriate caregivers.
Howard Skolnik, director of Nevada's prisons, said Wednesday that he wants investigations of potential guardians to ensure they're suitable caregivers.
"My concern is that what we were doing, even though it was within the statutes, was not in the best interest of the child," he said.
Prison and child welfare officials have yet to determine who would conduct the investigations and whether the proposal would be allowed under Nevada law.
The Department of Corrections allows an inmate to choose who will care for her baby. Unlike other states, the prison does not conduct background checks of the individual selected by an inmate.
State or county child welfare agencies get involved only if the inmate is unable to find anyone to take custody of the infant. There were 55 babies born to Nevada inmates in 2006 and 2007.
Skolnik said the desire to change procedures came after they learned a 3-year-old girl, who might have been born to a former Nevada prison inmate, was found during a drug bust in Green Bay, Wis., on April 22.
The girl was living with Heidi Hildahl, a 38-year-old Wisconsin woman with an extensive criminal history who was arrested on prostitution charges during the bust. Hildahl told Green Bay police that her husband, Salvador, is the girl's grandfather and that the Nevada Department of Corrections had granted her custody of the child.
Skolnik said it is still unknown whether the girl was born to a former Nevada inmate. Wisconsin authorities believe the girl was born to Danielle Allen in 2005. Allen served time at the women's prison in North Las Vegas in 2005, but the prison doesn't have a record of the birth or who the baby was turned over to, according to a police affidavit.
Authorities thought the girl might be Everlyse Cabrera, who was 21/2 years old when she went missing while in the custody of a foster family in 2006. Wisconsin authorities don't believe the girl is Everlyse but await DNA test results.
Mike Willden, head of the Department of Health and Human Services, said he spoke to Skolnik on Wednesday morning about providing help to prison officials.
Health and Human Services staff spent the day studying issues surrounding the placement of inmate babies and came back with many questions, including whether county or state government should also get involved with pregnant inmates in jails, as well as prisons.
In several states, government child welfare agencies conduct criminal background checks and home visits for anyone who takes custody of a baby born to inmates. Officials say that prevents newborns from being put into dangerous and unsafe living situations.
The county's child welfare system, however, can't legally intervene in an inmate's choice of a guardian if there's no evidence of abuse or neglect, said Clark County Department of Family Services spokeswoman Christine Skorupski.
Any discussion of how or whether child welfare agencies should get involved in inmates' decisions is just beginning, she said.
"Just because someone is in custody, it doesn't mean that they aren't in a position to choose their child's placement," she said. "Ultimately, parents have rights."
Contact reporter David Kihara at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-1039.