Lawsuit claims inadequate care of foster children by welfare agencies

A national child advocacy group has filed a new federal lawsuit in hopes of revamping a child welfare system it says has failed in caring for Southern Nevada’s abused and neglected children.

The federal lawsuit filed in Las Vegas late Tuesday by the California-based National Center for Youth Law names 13 foster children as victims of a variety of failures by Clark County’s Department of Family Services.

The lawsuit also names the state Department of Health and Human Services.

The allegations include failures to provide proper medical and mental health treatment, to investigate abuse and neglect allegations while children were in foster homes, and to provide an advocate for court hearings.

“Kids are not safe in foster care in Clark County,” said Donna Coleman, founder of the Las Vegas-based Children’s Advocacy Alliance and a frequent critic of the county’s Family Services.

The lawsuit also seeks class-action status for three subgroups among the county’s 3,600 foster children.

The National Center for Youth Law filed a similar lawsuit in 2006 but withdrew it in October after running into several legal issues, including the fact that the original foster children named in the lawsuit had been adopted or had aged out of the system.

The federal judge on the case also had concerns that the class action was too vague and that the lawsuit didn’t seek monetary damages for the plaintiffs.

The new lawsuit was written to address those concerns and narrowed the class action to three groups: children younger than 3 who haven’t received early intervention services; children who haven’t received a case plan within the required 45 days; and children who did not receive an appointed advocate to represent them in court.

The new lawsuit also seeks monetary damages for the foster children named in it.

“We expect the jury to return substantial damages for the children who were harmed,” said Bill Grimm, an attorney for the National Center for Youth Law.

One issue raised that wasn’t included in the initial lawsuit is what Grimm called the overuse of psychotropic drugs to treat foster children and a lack of oversight in their use.

For example, 11-year-old Henry A. was taken to a hospital intensive care unit last year because of drug poisoning after taking various medications without proper oversight by caseworkers, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also takes aim at a 2009 law meant to streamline foster care placements with relatives, known as kinship care. The lawsuit said the law requires only a criminal background check for potential caregivers, which fails to determine whether they are properly trained or qualified to care for a foster child.

One example cited in the lawsuit involved 9-year-old Olivia G., who was beaten with a belt and made to hold up stacks of books as punishment while living with her cousins and grandparents.

Grimm said the county’s child welfare system has done little to improve since the first lawsuit was filed.

“Children are still not protected from harm,” he said. “Children are still at risk in Clark County.”

Spokesmen for the state and county agencies named in the lawsuit said they could not comment because they had not reviewed it.

Richard Wexler, executive director of the Virginia-based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said the lawsuit will fail because it doesn’t address the key problem in the state’s child welfare system.

Nevada’s rate of removing children from homes is 70 percent above the national average, which overloads caseworkers and leads to them missing dangerous situations, said Wexler, whose group favors keeping families together.

The high rate of removal is the elephant in the room, he said.

“The system probably stinks every bit as much as NCYL thinks it stinks,” he said. “But if you ignore the elephant in the room, you won’t fix your system.”

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

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