State panel takes up child welfare concerns Tuesday

Many aspects of Clark County’s child welfare system aren’t serving children well, said Barbara Buckley, former assembly speaker and executive director for the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.

“There are some areas that have been improved over the years …but overall the system is not working well right now,” she said Thursday. “Things are just not clicking. All the policies that need to be in place are not.”

Buckley is a member of the new blue ribbon committee appointed by Nevada Supreme Court Justice Nancy Saitta to examine shortcomings in Clark County’s child welfare system and courts. The group will meet for the first time at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Regional Justice Center.

The meeting agenda covers the adequacy of foster parents and homes, the reduction of time for children in foster placement, the child welfare court process and issues related to Child Haven, the county’s emergency shelter for abused and neglected children.

Other committee members include Clark County Assistant Manager Jeff Wells; Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson; Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman; County Commissioner Susan Brager; 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 founder of The Reilly Group.

Buckley, who is grateful Saitta formed the group, believes the system is not child-focused.

“When your focus is the child and you are not paralyzed by an action or lack of training or other factors, the right decisions are usually made,” Buckley said.

In addition to items the group will examine during its first meeting, it also will look at why children taken into protective custody are not being released to relatives as quickly as possible.

The formation of the blue ribbon committee comes in the wake of concerns raised by Family Services workers over safety issues concerning children, families and workers. A petition signed by some 390 employees and presented to Clark County commissioners on Aug. 5 also expressed concerns over large caseloads. The population at Child Haven, which at times exceeded its capacity earlier this year, also has raised concerns with local children’s advocates.

Officials for the county and its Department of Family Services asked to comment for this story didn’t provide responses.

Saitta said anytime officials have the opportunity to come together and improve a system, they should do so.

It’s important that officials never stop trying to improve the child welfare system because children’s lives are in the balance, Buckley added. She hopes policies will be examined and changed to better serve children.

One problem that’s been “frustrating and mind-boggling” is the practice of not placing children who have been removed from their homes with relatives immediately, she said. Instead, relatives are forced to jump through hoops and wait for months to get custody of their family members, she said.

“Relatives should be identified as soon as children are removed from their parents,” she said. “That child should be placed with someone they know and love.”

Whenever officials can avoid placing a child in foster care, “it must be avoided,” she said. That also would free up foster homes for other children who need them.

“I would love to see that policy change,” she said. “To me, it’s a no-brainer.”

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

Ed Cotton, a consultant who worked with that group, said some of the recommendations from the 2006 blue ribbon panel were implemented while others weren’t.

“Too much time was wasted questioning whether the recommendations were right rather than fixing the problems,” he said Thursday.

The issues before the new blue ribbon panel will lead to other issues that also need to be scrutinized, Cotton said. For example: Are workers trained to make the right decisions when a child is first removed from a home? Are there services available for cases when the child could remain home? Are children being placed in the right foster homes when they are removed from their home? Are there placement prevention services?

“I hope that the committee will look at all of that,” he said.

Cotton believes it is critical that caseworkers be involved in the committee.

“The best information you get comes from the workers, and the best understanding is from the people who have gone out on cases themselves,” he said. “You get a cleaner picture and a cleaner understanding on what’s going on.”

He also hopes that children’s advocates are not blocked out of the process.

The committee’s goal is to finish its work by Jan. 30, 2015 to allow time for any bill proposals to go through the Legislature during the 2015 session.

But the committee’s work shouldn’t end with its recommendations. A subcommittee should be formed “to ensure that the recommendations are followed through,” Cotton said.

For example, having 60-day updates where officials could provide progress updates on implementing recommendations is an option, he said.

Perhaps a recommendation from the committee will be to form a child welfare commission to have continued oversight, Buckley said.

Bonnie Parnell, a former Democratic assemblywoman and member of the 2006 blue ribbon panel, said it was wise to appoint a blue ribbon committee. It’s a form of oversight, she added.

“I think you always have to stay on top of things,” she said Thursday. “We can’t assume that everything is working as smoothly as we think it is.”

Contact Yesenia Amaro at yamaro@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440. Find her on Twitter: @YeseniaAmaro.

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