The pursuit of justice in the death of 7-year-old Roderick “RJ” Arrington goes far beyond the prosecution of his stepfather, Markiece Palmer, and mother, Dina Palmer, on charges of first-degree murder and child abuse. It’s important for county taxpayers to know there’s some accountability within the child welfare system that failed RJ, and that it won’t fail other children with tragic consequences.
RJ died Nov. 30, two days after officials at the boy’s school suspected abuse and called the Clark County Family Services hotline. But no one followed up to investigate that tip, and police say the boy was whipped and beaten by both his stepfather and mother when he arrived home from school that day.
Family Services launched a thorough investigation and ultimately fired employee Jadon Davis in January for not following hotline policies. The department said “egregious errors” were made in collecting information and assigning a response time. In an email to Clark County commissioners, Family Services Director Lisa Ruiz-Lee wrote: “We did multiple reviews of this case, including convening a special multidisciplinary child death review with our state, public safety, and education partners. We ultimately determined the hotline and CPS (Child Protective Services) Policies were sound and effectively protected children, if followed by staff.”
Unfortunately, an arbitrator — is there a more sickening word for taxpayers today? — disagreed with findings of the investigation and the treatment of Mr. Davis. As reported last week by the Review-Journal’s Ben Botkin and Yesenia Amaro, Ms. Ruiz-Lee sent commissioners an email Friday stating that an arbitrator had found in Mr. Davis’ favor, and that he would return to work with no discipline on his record and an undetermined amount of back pay.
Arbitrators are seldom allied with the interests of the public. More often, they are allied with the interests of the bureaucracy. Look no further than the Metropolitan Police Department’s recent round of arbitration with the Police Protective Association, in which the arbitrator ignored Nevada law and left almost no record in support of a binding decision that saddles taxpayers with more than $11 million in new personnel costs.
This case highlights that lives are at stake when hotline employees handle calls regarding suspected child abuse. Family Services has policies in place to provide children with protection. But if the agency is powerless to hold an employee accountable when policies aren’t followed, then the policies are nothing more than suggestions. As sickening as this decision is, the ruling vindicates every government manager who has allowed an underperforming, insubordinate or incompetent employee to stick around. They know that attempting to fire a problem worker wastes taxpayer money. They know the bureaucracy is bullet-proof.
Nevada needs legislation to dial back the power of arbitrators, who aren’t accountable to the public. And local governments need to more clearly spell out in labor agreements what policy violations will lead to termination. As the tragedy of RJ’s death shows, such action can’t be taken quickly enough.