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State defends action at academy

CARSON CITY — A deputy attorney general defended state Division of Child and Family Services workers Friday who removed 33 children from the Abundant Life Academy near Ely in 2005 after receiving allegations the children were being abused.

“What if something happened to these children if we had not removed them?” Deputy Attorney General Andrea Nichols asked the state Supreme Court during an appeals hearing. “These kind of decisions face social workers every day. They have to make split second decisions on whether kids are safe. They should also not have to worry they will get sued.”

A White Pine County jury previously found the state did not have reasonable grounds to remove the children from the academy. A judge also denied immunity from personal liability for Robin Landry, the rural head of the division’s Child Protective Services. She led the move to remove the children from the private boarding school.

A district judge ruled that the damages the state would pay in the case could not be more than $50,000, the legal cap for which the state could be sued at the time.

The state is seeking a new trial in the case and trying to secure immunity for Landry.

Abundant Life Academy wants the Supreme Court to rule that it should receive $50,000 in damages for each child removed from the school.

The three justices who heard the case gave no indication of where they stand. A decision is not expected for several months. The Abundant Life Academy was one of a chain of private Christian boarding schools for troubled teenagers across the country. It no longer operates in Nevada.

Nichols told the court that the school had not even secured a business license to operate. Before removing the children, Landry and other social workers visited the property four different times. They interviewed students in connection with charges of abuse and neglect made by a parent.

In May 2005, Landry and others went to the school and took the children away on a bus.

Six social workers, Nichols added, signed affidavits that they thought the children were in danger and should be moved.

But lawyer John Ohlson, representing the academy, said the jury found that Landry acted “with malice” and consequently she is not entitled to immunity protection against lawsuits usually given state workers in the course of their jobs.

When a state worker acts inappropriately, Ohlson said, immunity can’t be expected.

Ohlson added that the reputation of the academy was ruined by the state action.

He also maintained that the state was prepared to shut down the school even before it conducted an investigation.

But Nichols contended that the whole purpose of Child Protective Services is to protect children from abuse and neglect.

She also argued that the state Supreme Court itself has ruled in previous cases that social workers cannot be sued for actions they take in the course of their work.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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