Default setting: secrecy, obfuscation

Clark County’s Department of Child and Family Services has never been a bastion of openness.

When it was revealed that at least 11 children had died of abuse while in the agency’s protective custody between 2001 and 2004, it took a state analysis to determine that another 79 deaths of children during that same period should have been investigated by the county agency, but were not.

To make matters worse, DCFS officials refused to release much information about those cases, saying they had to protect the privacy of the children — even though they had all died!

The absurdity of that position led Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, to propose Assembly Bill 261, requiring child welfare agencies to comply with any requests for reports or investigative information regarding child deaths.

The bill passed easily and is now law.

“When things go wrong,” Ms. Buckley noted, “government’s first instinct is to not provide information because they are going to look bad.”

Ms. Buckley’s observation remains valid. On Thursday, a federal judge issued a strong rebuke to the county, ruling in favor of a California organization that is suing to reform Southern Nevada’s child welfare system.

Again, secrecy and obfuscation had been the default setting.

The National Center for Youth Law filed its lawsuit two years ago. It alleges numerous problems with the way DCFS operates — that the department places children in unsafe homes; it doesn’t properly investigate allegations of abuse and neglect; and fails to properly monitor foster parents and homes.

As part of the lawsuit, the center requested numerous documents involving the department’s investigations into various cases of abuse involving children in foster care. County officials fought the request, but lost last March.

Did the county turn over the documents?

You haven’t been paying attention.

Instead of complying with the judge’s order, county attorneys appealed. They lost again in federal court when a judge upheld the original ruling.

Did the county turn over the information?

Of course not.

“They still refused to produce these documents, and this is after two court orders,” said Bill Grimm, senior attorney for the National Center for Youth Law.

Remember Ms. Buckley’s comment about bureaucrats covering their rears?

Finally, on Thursday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Johnson gave the county until Oct. 3 to provide to Mr. Grimm’s organization copies of about 1,100 abuse reports compiled by the Department of Child and Family Services. In addition, the judge ordered the county to pay the center’s legal costs.

A spokeswoman for DCFS said the agency would make it’s “best effort” to comply.

Isn’t that special? But how much money could taxpayers have saved had the department simply handed over the information in the first place? This whole debacle is a stain on the entire county.

The obvious question: Just what exactly is in those documents that scares bureaucrats so?

Stay tuned.

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