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Judge tosses out lawsuit involving abused and neglected children

A federal judge on Wednesday threw out a class action civil rights lawsuit aimed at revamping Clark County’s system for protecting abused and neglected children.

In his 31-page decision, U.S. District Judge Robert C. Jones said the lawsuit filed by a national child advocacy group on behalf of 13 foster children failed to show why county and state officials should be held liable in federal court for problems in Southern Nevada’s child welfare system.

Donna Coleman, founder of the Las Vegas-based Children’s Advocacy Alliance and a critic of the county’s Department of Family Services, said the judge had his mind made up after a hearing last week.

“He doesn’t want these lawyers from California telling Nevada how to run its child welfare system, but somebody has to,” Coleman said, referring to the Oakland, Calif.-based National Center for Youth Law.

Members of the center could not be reached for comment.

In a statement, county officials praised Jones’ decision.

“We believe the best way to serve our community is to focus our efforts on improving services for children and families in Clark County, not exhausting resources on litigation,” the statement said.

State officials would not comment, saying their lawyers had not reviewed the decision.

The National Center for Youth Law filed its first lawsuit against state and county officials in 2006 but withdrew it a year ago after running into several legal issues raised by Jones.

Lawyers for the group refiled the lawsuit in April after finding new plaintiffs and rewriting the lawsuit to address Jones’ concerns. The new lawsuit’s defendants included Nevada Department of Health and Human Services Director Michael Willden, Clark County Manager Virginia Valentine and county Department of Family Services Director Tom Morton.

The lawsuit sought class action status for three subgroups among the county’s 3,600 foster children and monetary damages for the 13 foster children named as plaintiffs.

In his decision, Jones ruled that the defendants had “qualified immunity” from most of the claims in the lawsuit. Under federal law, government officials have such immunity if their actions did not violate “clearly established” constitutional rights.

The lawsuit alleged the officials did not provide adequate medical, dental and mental health care for foster children. Jones wrote that the state is required only to provide “basic human needs” to children under its care and that anything else beyond that was not a “clearly established” right.

The lawsuit also alleged the county and state acted with “deliberate indifference” to obvious dangers when they placed children in dangerous foster homes.

But under federal law, Jones ruled, officials cannot be held liable unless their actions created or increased the danger for the children, not merely exposed them to dangers that already existed.

Another issue raised was the county’s failure to provide independent representatives for foster children, known as guardians ad litem, in every case.

But Jones ruled that the state law requiring a guardian ad litem in every case is in line with the federal law, though in practice they are not appointed in every case.

Jones wrote that he did not want to step in and enforce that provision, because it would interfere too much with the workings of a state court.

Despite Jones’ ruling, Coleman said she was not unhappy with the dismissal.

She said an appeal is likely and welcomed the chance to put the case before a new judge.

“In the end we will prevail because we have to,” she said. “These kids need us.”

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

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