Appeals court reinstates child welfare lawsuit

A federal appeals court Friday reinstated a class action civil rights lawsuit aimed at revamping Clark County’s system for protecting abused and neglected children.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Jones dismissed the case in October 2010, saying the lawsuit by a national child advocacy group on behalf of 13 foster children failed to show why county and state officials should be held liable in federal court for problems in Southern Nevada’s child welfare system.

But Friday’s decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned most of Jones’ ruling and allowed the case to move forward.

Child welfare advocates hailed the decision.

“It’s obviously a tremendous victory for foster children,” said Bill Grimm of the Oakland, Calif.-based National Center for Youth Law, which filed the lawsuit.

“It’s huge,” local child advocate Donna Coleman said.

Friday’s decision continues a six-year legal battle over Clark County’s child welfare system.

The National Center for Youth Law filed its first lawsuit against state and county officials in 2006 but withdrew it three years later after running into several legal issues raised by Jones.

Lawyers for the group refiled the lawsuit in April 2010 after finding new plaintiffs and rewriting the lawsuit to address Jones’ concerns. The new lawsuit’s defendants include Nevada Department of Health and Human Services Director Michael Willden, former Clark County Manager Virginia Valentine and then-county Department of Family Services Director Tom Morton.

“We believe the plaintiffs’ claims will ultimately prove to have no merit, and we look forward to making our case in court,” Clark County spokesman Erik Pappa said in a statement.

State officials did not comment on the decision.

The lawsuit sought class action status for three subgroups among the county’s 3,600 foster children and monetary damages for the 13 foster children named as plaintiffs. The lawsuit’s claims centered on allegations that the county child welfare agency failed to provide adequate care and safety for its foster children.

Among the appeals court’s key rulings were that foster children had a constitutional right to more than basic needs and that agency heads could be held liable for their agencies’ actions, Grimm said.

“State and county officials can’t be indifferent to those needs without suffering consequences,” he said.

The court also ruled that foster parents have the right to see all of their foster children’s medical, mental health and educational records, Grimm said. Throughout the country, including Nevada, child welfare agencies often withhold such records from foster parents, he said.

The case will return to federal court in Las Vegas and continue from where it left off.

“We’re looking forward to going back to the District Court and getting justice for these children,” Grimm said. “They’ve suffered long enough.”

Review-Journal reporter Kristi J ourdan contributed to this report. Contact reporter Brian Haynes at or 702-383-0281.

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