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Agency said kids not in ‘imminent danger’ despite documented cocaine use at facility

Updated May 15, 2023 - 12:19 pm

Politicians in Nye County were concerned about the well-being of children at Never Give Up Youth Healing Center as early as July 2021, according to internal emails from the Department of Child and Family Services, but the department assured elected officials that the children were not in imminent danger.

Never Give Up, which housed children who suffered from a range of behavioral and psychiatric conditions, was the subject of a Las Vegas Review-Journal investigation published in April that outlined allegations of child abuse that led to hefty fines from the state health department. The health department since has revoked the Amargosa Valley facility’s license, a spokeswoman confirmed Friday, and all of the children were removed last month.

Assemblyman Gregory Hafen, R-Pahrump, said he received a letter from a constituent expressing concerns about the facility, and records show that he and Sen. Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, sent the letter to the family services and health departments via a legislative policy analyst on July 1, 2021. The letter was not attached when the family services department fulfilled a records request from the Review-Journal for all correspondence from January 2019 to August 2022 related to the facility.

In an interview with the Review-Journal on Thursday, Hafen said he did not remember the contents of the letter. Goicoechea did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Internal emails between agencies communicating about the politicians’ inquiry reveal that the Bureau of Health Care Quality and Compliance had substantiated claims that a staff member gave cocaine to three students at Never Give Up in June 2021.

The allegation was “verified by interviews with one of the residents, staff and documented drug screenings showing all kids positive and the staff member as well,” a bureau employee wrote to a health department administrator.

But Hafen told the Review-Journal that he was never informed of the drug use.

“This is absolutely appalling,” he said Thursday. “I’m just disturbed to hear you tell me that. I feel for the children.”

Never Give Up could not be reached for comment for this story.

Two weeks after the letter was sent to the agencies, a family services employee wrote in an internal email that the staff member was “terminated immediately,” and the facility reported the cocaine use to the Nye County Sheriff’s Office, records show.

Staffer never found

A report from health department inspectors obtained by the Review-Journal identified the staff member who gave the children cocaine as Marc Jones. The report shows that Never Give Up did not send the students to a doctor, but they were monitored by licensed practical nurse Christina Mendoza.

Mendoza was arrested last month and is facing six counts, including criminal neglect of a patient resulting in substantial bodily harm and failing to report abuse of a vulnerable person. Police said she did not alert authorities to children’s injuries despite being a mandatory reporter of child abuse. She is scheduled to appear in Beatty Justice Court in June, and she has not been formally charged.

Four other adults associated with the facility also are facing criminal charges in Nye County ranging from child abuse to sexual assault of a minor.

Related: Men accused of raping teens at psychiatric center face judge

According to notes from inspectors included in the health department report, a child reported that Jones “peer pressured” him into taking cocaine in June 2021. Another child reported that Jones told him the drugs would keep him “calm.”

In a statement Wednesday, the Nye County Sheriff’s Office said Jones was never arrested because deputies could not find him when they arrived at the facility.

A report was submitted to the Nye County district attorney’s office, but prosecutors have not filed charges, Nye County District Attorney Brian Kunzi said in an emailed statement Friday.

Kunzi, who was elected in June, said prosecutors who investigated Jones have since left the office, but he is in the process of reviewing the case.

“It appears a draft complaint for possession of cocaine was prepared, but there are no notes regarding why charges were not filed,” Kunzi wrote in a message to the Review-Journal. “There is nothing in the file that indicates charges for providing cocaine to any of the juveniles housed at the facility was considered.”

A family services administrator wrote in internal emails that the “best way” to respond to the politicians’ letter was to note that officials had recently investigated the facility, “but no children were found in immediate danger.”

Riot at facility

In August 2021, the policy analyst reached out again on behalf of Hafen to inquire about a riot at the facility, after the Sheriff’s Office posted information about in on YouTube.

An administrator for the Department of Public and Behavioral Health responded to the analyst that two residents were arrested and suspected of assaulting a staff member, who suffered a head injury and had to be flown to a hospital; one girl alleged that she was molested, but the complaint was not substantiated; and two other residents were injured during the riot.

Records indicate that the administrator also sent a statement of deficiencies to the analyst that was based on an inspection following a complaint made in June 2021, when the staff member was alleged to have given the children cocaine.

A statement of deficiencies obtained by the Review-Journal and dated June 28, 2021, included an investigation into the cocaine use.

The allegation was “substantiated without regulatory deficiencies identified,” records show.

“I can tell you that we have not removed any children from the facility,” a family services administrator wrote to the policy analyst in September 2021. “DCFS will remove a child from a situation (home or facility) if there is a determination that the child is in imminent danger of substantial bodily harm.”

Hafen said he’s following multiple bills in the current legislative session that could address conditions at Nevada’s psychiatric residential treatment facilities.

“We’re still in session trying to figure out what we do going forward to never have a situation like this again,” Hafen said Thursday.

Contact Sabrina Schnur at sschnur@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0278. Follow @sabrina_schnur on Twitter. Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter.

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