Five siblings reported missing for about 24 hours were back at a Las Vegas emergency children’s shelter Wednesday, but unanswered questions surround their return.
Exactly how the children left Child Haven on Tuesday, where they went and how they got there remained unclear. Las Vegas police were working to find answers, while child welfare advocates said the questions warrant reviews of the Clark County facility’s response and policies.
The state child care licensing agency is conducting its own investigation, according to Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Mary Woods. That will determine whether the facility followed protocol and took proper precautions to ensure child safety.
Critics said the children, who range in age from 7 to 14, shouldn’t have been able to get away from supervision so easily. But the head of Child Haven said staff followed state law in letting them go.
“These children come to us as victims, so we’re not detaining them. We’re not allowed to lock them down,” said Jolie Courtney, manager of the facility near Bonanza and Pecos roads.
Keeping the youngsters at Child Haven means trying to talk things out, offer them counseling, for instance, Courtney said. With younger children who are upset, workers might offer a “hug hold” to comfort them, Courtney said.
“The entire time I’ve been here that’s always worked,” Courtney said. The situation involved “older siblings who sort of took control, and we weren’t successful.”
Donna Coleman, co-founder of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance and longtime critic of county juvenile services, said she wonders whether the staff-to-children ratio is off at Child Haven.
“How is it possible for this to happen?” Coleman asked. “Maybe they’re not a detention center, but they don’t have an open-door policy to let 7-year-olds walk out the gate.”
Child Haven buildings have electronically locked doors that require ID badges for entry. Much of the 10-acre campus includes fences about 4 feet high, easy enough to climb or jump. Facility staff and police did not know how Demetri Nicholas, 7, Sarah Nicholas, 9, Luchiano Nicholas, 11, Violet Bimbo-Nicholas, 13, and Savannah Nicholas, 14, made their exit.
Someone who had seen the children’s pictures in media reports called police to say they had been spotted at a Taco Bell near Lake Mead Boulevard at Buffalo Drive. When officers arrived at a nearby Walgreens, they found the children safe and healthy.
On Tuesday, the siblings had joined the rest of the Child Haven residents who were playing in the facility’s sprayground, a playground with water features.
A police news release with photos said the Nicholas boys were wearing swim trunks when they went missing.
“We try and use these very sparingly because obviously if you inundate the media or the public with these types of fliers, they tend to get kind of numb to them,” police spokeswoman Laura Meltzer said.
Police on Wednesday said the children were “repeat runaways.”
Meltzer said investigators will interview them to figure out where they went and how they got there, but it seemed apparent they must have gotten a ride. The drugstore where police picked them up is more than 10 miles from Child Haven.
Courtney said Child Haven’s policy allows staff to follow children to the facility’s property line. Once they step off, police must get involved. That is what her staff did, Courtney said.
Child Haven is for children who have been removed from their homes for their own protection, Courtney said. On Wednesday, it housed 29 children.
Review-Journal writer Caitlyn Belcher contributed to this report. Contact reporter Adam Kealoha Causey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0401.