Inquiry launched into Clark County child welfare problems

Nevada Supreme Court Justice Nancy Saitta has called for a blue ribbon committee to examine shortcomings in the Clark County child welfare system and courts.

The committee will examine problems that include crowding at Child Haven, the county’s emergency shelter for abused or neglected children, the shortage of foster homes, and long court calenders for child welfare cases. The group will also examine why children are not being released to relatives.

“Action needs to be taken immediately to address these shortcomings that are jeopardizing the well-being of children in Clark County,” Saitta said in a statement Monday. “These children deserve better, and I get no sense of urgency on the part of the system. This committee will identify the most serious issues in the child welfare system and work with County officials to make sure they are corrected quickly.”

Saitta appointed the group as part of the Court Improvement Program for the Protection and Permanency of Dependent Children, which she leads.

The plan is for the blue ribbon committee to meet during the next four months and come up with recommendations for county action, possible legislative bills for the 2015 session or a combination of both.

In addition to Saitta, the committee will include Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman; County Commissioner Susan Brager; former assembly speaker and Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada Executive Director Barbara Buckley; Nevada Human Health and Services Director Amber Howell; District Judge Deborah Schumacher, Second Judicial District Court; and Thom Reilly, a former Clark County manager and managing principal and founder of The Reilly Group.

“Children are being separated from their siblings and the wishes of relatives are being totally ignored as decisions about the children are being made,” Buckley said in a statement. “There seems to be a real inconsistency in the way children in different parts of town are treated. These are problems that need to be fixed now; they are having a devastating impact on our children.”

Brager said Monday that the panel has an important task ahead — looking at the system globally and all the interconnecting parts of the child welfare system.

“They’re all interlinked,” Brager said. “The focus on the child and being able to do what is right for the child will make it worthwhile. … I’m very excited that we’re looking at the big picture.”

Lisa Ruiz-Lee, director of Clark County Department of Family Services, and Assistant Clark County Manager Jeff Wells are “anxious to be part of the solution,” the state supreme court’s release said.

“I have worked with Justice Saitta on a number of committees and I know her deep commitment to the children and families of our community and I look forward to working with her and the other committee members to address the concerns of the child welfare system,” Wells said in a prepared statement.

Wells and Family Services officials were unavailable for interviews Monday afternoon.

Donna Coleman, a longtime child advocate in Clark County, said that for a blue ribbon panel to have value, it will need to make major, positive changes in a timely fashion with the information it gathers.

“I’ve seen so many panels in my 20-plus years of advocating that have accomplished zero,” Coleman said.

The committee is on a tight schedule. The group is expected to meet three times, with the first meeting set for Oct. 7. The committee’s goal is to finish its work by Jan. 30, 2015. That deadline allows time for any bill proposals to go to Legislature when lawmakers meet in February.

The state convened a blue ribbon panel in 2006 to review child fatalities in Nevada. That panel resulted in steps to improve the tracking and accuracy of information about fatalities, and report death notifications to the state’s Division of Child and Family Services.

Ed Cotton, a consultant who worked with that group, said it will be important for the new committee to have a strategic plan to guide its work. He said it will be important to get input from caseworkers and foster parents.

“I think it’s really important they don’t just review files or talk to managers,” Cotton said.

Flexibility and openness to hearing varied public input can play a key role too for the panel, he said.

One of the things that came out of the last panel’s input was that they couldn’t get through when calling the county’s child abuse hotline. In the public meeting, the panel — after hearing a rosy statement that calls to the hotline get through within three minutes — placed a call to the hotline. They waited 26 minutes before someone on the hotline answered the call, Cotton said.

“You can’t ignore those things when they come up,” he said.

Contact Ben Botkin at bbotkin@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2904. Find him on Twitter: @BenBotkin1.

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