A school worker’s report to Clark County’s child abuse hotline about 7-year-old Roderick “RJ” Arrington Jr. was one of more than 35,000 such calls handled in 2012.
Governed by laws meant to protect privacy and confidentiality, the calls and actions of county employees who answer them seldom are made public. But on Nov. 28, 2012, the school worker’s call for help reverberated across the Las Vegas Valley. Within a month, the hotline worker was fired, after questions arose about the priority assigned to the case.
The crux of the case hinges on whether the hotline worker had enough information to warrant assigning it a Priority 1 case, which would have meant a response from a Child Protective Services investigator within three hours. Instead, hotline worker Jadon Davis assigned the case a Priority 2, requiring a response within 24 hours. A Priority 3 requires a response within 72 hours. Anything else gets no response at all.
An employee at RJ’s school called the hotline, reporting concerns that the boy had extensive scarring, had difficulty walking and said he had been beaten. But the employee, whose identity has not been made public, also reported the child said he felt safe to go home, and she declined to check immediately for current injuries on the child’s rear, county records show.
Based on those circumstances, Davis assigned it a Priority 2, and RJ was allowed to go home. The next day he was rushed to University Medical Center in a coma.
His brain swollen and body covered with bruises, RJ died from his injuries. His mother, Dina Palmer, and stepfather, Markiece Palmer, face child abuse and murder charges.
RJ’s case sheds light on the operations of child abuse reporting hotlines, as well as policies that guide workers who determine how to prioritize thousands of reports.
Those decisions in Clark County mean the difference between an investigator showing up within three hours, the next day or perhaps not at all.
CODING THE CALLS
The Clark County hotline took 35,016 calls in 2012. They resulted in 15,187 abuse and neglect referrals. The referrals led to 8,908 Child Protective Services investigations.
Child Protective Services hotline workers coded 1,411 calls as Priority 1, which required a response within three hours, according to county records.
A total of 307 calls were assigned a Priority 3, which requires a response from an investigator within 72 hours, according to county statistics.
The report about RJ was one of 6,628 Priority 2 calls last year. As such, it fell in the mid-range of the most commonly used classification.
Hotline workers need to gather as much information as possible to make the best determination how to prioritize calls, officials said. In Clark County, 32 hotline workers are tasked with that job.
The perception of the hotline workers’ role has changed over the years, said Jill Marano of the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services.
In the past, their work was viewed almost as clerical. Now, a call is viewed as the start of an assessment of what’s going on with the child and family, Marano said.
That can make the hotline worker’s judgment, and the policies that guide them, a matter of life and death.
POLICY IN QUESTION
After RJ’s death, Clark County officials determined that its policies, if followed correctly, adequately protect children. Davis, who handled the call in RJ’s case, failed to follow policy, officials found. He was fired on Dec. 27, 2012.
But an arbitrator last month reinstated Davis, ruling that he did follow policy. Instead, the arbitrator faulted the county policy, noting that Priority 1 and 3 calls both represent extreme situations, causing most reports to be coded Priority 2 by default.
County officials defend the hotline policy, calling Colorado-based arbitrator Kathy Eisenmenger’s decision “incorrect” and showing a lack of understanding of child welfare practices.
Paula Hammack, assistant director at the Clark County Department of Family Services, said a call must be coded Priority 1 when the referral contains information of present or impending danger to a child.
County officials say Davis had enough information to correctly designate RJ’s case as a Priority 1, but failed to ask the right clarifying questions.
Davis maintains he asked the school worker for clarifying details.
The school worker reported seeing scars on the boy, who was walking with difficulty, but was unwilling to comply with Davis’ request that she check the boy’s buttocks for injuries, arbitration records show.
Based on the fact that the scars indicated old, healed injuries and a lack of current visible injuries, Davis determined the child was not in immediate danger and listed the call as Priority 2.
REVIEWING THE POLICY
While defending the current policy, county officials also have it under review as part of a routine process that happens every two years.
“There will be revisions to the policy, not as a result of this arbitration finding, but as a result of the implementation of the revised safety practice model that we’ve been working on since February of this year,” said Lisa Ruiz-Lee, director of the Clark County Department of Family Services.
The revisions won’t be significant, Ruiz-Lee said.
“There are just some nuances, like additional assessment information that you want to collect,” Hammack said. “They are still collecting the same information around the same six questions. The priority response or time frames are not changing.”
The policy has six questions hotline workers must ask mandated reporters, such as teachers, school administrators and doctors, in addition to the right follow-up and clarifying questions.
Those questions include circumstances of the abuse claims, parenting practices of the family and if the child shows fear of the home situation.
County records show RJ told the school worker that he was beaten, but also indicated he felt safe to go home when asked. That information, relayed from the school employee to Davis, was a factor in his decision to code it as a Priority 2.
OUTSIDE CLARK COUNTY
In Washoe County, the policy for prioritizing child abuse calls mirrors that of Clark County.
A Priority 1 call means “danger is urgent,” said Jeanne Marsh, director for the Washoe County Children’s Services Division.
An example of a Priority 1 call would be a 2-year-old child wandering down the street unaccompanied, Marsh said.
“To me, the priority ones, they’re in your face. It’s pretty obvious in situations like that.”
With a Priority 2 call, there may be concern about the family dynamic, but not an immediate danger, Marsh said, explaining that this kind of call might come while a child is in school, but there are questions about the home environment.
For a Priority 3 call, there may be signs of maltreatment, but no safety risk involved. A child who isn’t getting required dental treatment would be classified as a Priority 3, Marsh said.
There are no major differences in the way child abuse hotline calls are prioritized anywhere in Nevada.
Marano said the state’s hotline, which covers areas outside Clark and Washoe counties, follows a similar prioritizing process.
Still, the work remains challenging.
“Sometimes you’re really relying on a phone conversation with a referral source,” Marano said. “You don’t always have the full picture. It can be real tough to figure out whether or not you need to go out there.”
But, she added, “To me, it seems to work if you follow the policies and you follow the definitions of ‘present danger’ and ‘impending danger.’ ”
Hotlines follow a similar structure, though expected response times can vary, county by county and state by state.
Utah’s Division of Child and Family Services requires a one hour response for Priority 1 calls, or three hours in a rural area.
“Priority 1’s are pretty rare,” said Sarah Houser, a child protective services program administrator for Utah.
Priority 2 calls in Utah require a 24-hour response, just as in Clark County.
Hotline workers are required to ask plenty of questions, she said, but the work also has a subjective nature.
“I think when you work with humans there’s always an element of subjectivity that comes along with that,” she said.
Hammack said there could be subjectivity, though that doesn’t negate the process of handling calls.
“Based on the information that is being reported, there’s some things that are subjective,” she said. “You are trying to get information from somebody who is trying to give information, and we are trying to assess it.”
What’s not subjective, she said, is the standard for declaring a Priority 1 response when there is information regarding present or impending danger.
EVALUATING THE SYSTEM
Ruiz-Lee acknowledged RJ’s death caused the agency to evaluate the system as a whole, including its ties to law enforcement, the Clark County School District and child welfare services.
A special Child Death Review Team reviewed the case, with input from police, child welfare professionals and school officials. The team found room for improvement around training for mandated reporters, she said.
Training is an ongoing discussion at the Clark County School District.
A school spokeswoman said a committee representing all departments has looked for better training methods. Officials produced a video, which every principal began to show staff this year.
Child advocates who train mandatory reporters advise against calling a hotline in all situations.
Michelle Fingerman, director of the National Child Abuse Hotline at ChildHelp, advises people to call law enforcement instead of a child abuse hotline if they see a life-or-death situation.
“CPS won’t get the immediate response,” Fingerman said. “You are going to want to call law enforcement so they can get there right away and hopefully save that child’s life. If you are unsure, call 911. The worst it can happen is that they will say that they can’t come out. It’s better to err on the side of caution.”
Reporter Ben Botkin can be reached at 702-387-2904, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenBotkin1. Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at 702-383-0440, or email@example.com.