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Child welfare system’s defects listed

The state’s child welfare system is plagued by low morale, overworked case workers, paperwork problems and a host of other issues, and “severe changes” are needed to improve it, according to a new audit by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“This review has demonstrated that the agencies are not neglectful of their duties or commitments to keep children safe in the community, however, severe changes need to be implemented to provide better service to families,” the report concluded.

The 10-month audit by a team of researchers from UNLV’s Nevada Institute for Children’s Research and Policy, the Boyd School of Law and School of Social Work was ordered by the 2007 Legislature to investigate the Nevada Department of Child and Family Services and the child welfare agencies in Clark and Washoe counties.

Researchers made random, unannounced visits to agency offices and reviewed 195 case files and the computer tracking program, called UNITY. They also interviewed case workers, supervisors and administrators from the three agencies.

“It’s not quite as horrible as previous reports,” said Denise Tanata Ashby of the Nevada Institute for Children’s Research and Policy.

Critics of Clark County’s child welfare system said the report highlighted the same problems that have existed for years.

“There’s no difference. There’s no change,” child advocate Donna Coleman said. “This report could have been written five or six years ago.”

The audit found documentation problems throughout the system, making it difficult to know if required steps were ever taken. For example, about four in 10 cases contained no documentation of a safety assessment before a case was closed. And in cases requiring monthly visits with children, only about one third met the minimum requirement, the report found.

In focus groups with case workers, “it became clear that workers are suffering from low morale and burnout due to high caseloads and constant pressure,” the report said.

Child welfare workers also pointed out a lack of community services for families in the system, especially for substance abuse and mental health counseling, the report found.

The audit also found the state and Clark County agencies lagged in implementing policies and procedures that are required by state and federal law.

Clark County’s Department of Family Services met only 37 percent of the requirements of such laws and regulations. Clark County met only 13 percent of best practice recommendations, which could be because many of those recommendations had been made in recent years, the report said.

Administrators for the agencies said they were working toward improving the child welfare services.

“Recent additions of staff are improving caseloads, new training and policies are being implemented, and the child safety net in this community is being improved,” Clark County spokesman Erik Pappa said in an e-mail.

“While this report is helpful in some instances, it is based partly on information that was collected prior to the implementation of more recent system improvements in Clark County.”

Bill Grimm, a lawyer with the National Center for Youth Law, said the report illustrates obvious problems with the Clark County’s child welfare system. The center is suing the county on behalf of abused and neglected children.

“This portrays a system not created or operated for child welfare, but child injury,” he said.

The entire report can be found at nic.unlv.edu.

Contact reporter Brian Haynes at bhaynes@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0281.

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