There has been an alarming rise in the number of children staying overnight — often for many nights — in Child Haven, the emergency congregate shelter operated by the Clark County Department of Family Services. For the month of January 2013, the average daily population was 19.7.
For January of this year, it was 33.5, and for June, it was 60.6. There are reports that on a particular day in April, the population had reached more than 80 children, and more than 90 on a day in July. Despite fluctuations during this period, where this is headed is all too clear.
Consider these figures within a broader context. In 2006, a daily count of well over 100 children was common, and the count had even reached as high as 230 children. Since the summer of that year, shortly after Tom Morton became the DFS director, the Child Haven population was steadily reduced. For the month of December 2009, the average daily population was 11.5, and it had even dipped as low as 2.5 for February 2010. In August 2011, when Morton resigned, it was 13.5. That level was roughly maintained for awhile, but now we are in danger of seeing Child Haven again being used as a dumping ground and “solution” for any problem encountered when police or DFS workers go out to investigate a family.
It has long been recognized that large institutional settings — as Child Haven is again becoming — are a poor substitute for foster family homes in most instances. And even though placement in foster homes is sometimes necessary, it is well-established that separation is a stressful experience for children that causes immediate emotional trauma and disturbances in behavior. A placement in Child Haven before being moved to foster homes or relatives needlessly adds to the instability of living arrangements and to the number of moves and separation trauma a child will experience. When placement is the only alternative for protecting a child, it is entirely feasible to place her or him in the most appropriate setting on the same day as removal.
But many children who have entered Child Haven could have remained safely in their own homes if DFS had addressed the problems of concern as soon as they became known. Excessive worker caseloads are surely an obstacle to a better-functioning DFS and should not be tolerated. But so are wrongheaded policies that do not give workers the proper tools (in the form of appropriate services to offer) with which to do their jobs.
In a study of children removed from their parents in Clark County during 2005-06, I found that homelessness and parents’ lack of resources were frequently involved. Yet DFS seldom offered parents rental assistance, day care or help with paying utility bills or finding housing. This situation is no better today. By not making reasonable efforts to prevent the need for child removal, DFS overloads its foster care system and thereby endangers the children within it.
DFS maintains more than 3,000 children in foster care on any given day and has done so for many years. Proportionate to the child population of Clark County, and more relevant to its child poverty population (from which most children in foster care come), this number constitutes one of the highest rates of children in foster care in the entire nation. Unless DFS begins to invest its own resources into concrete services and support to prevent the need for child removal, it will continue to fail in terms of prevention, reunification and improving the safety of children, whether with their parents or in foster care.
Incredibly, the estimated cost of operating Child Haven for fiscal year 2006-07 was 35 percent of total DFS expenditures. If the number of children in Child Haven is not once again reduced, it will be an enormous drain on the DFS budget, swallowing up money that could otherwise be used for preventive services — except for the fact that there does not seem to be a DFS plan for the provision of such services.
What is happening at Child Haven is a serious matter in itself, but it is also an indication that DFS is adrift, without clear strategies, plans or goals. This is not good for the children of struggling families in Clark County. Current DFS operations are in need of deep re-examination and change.
Leroy H. Pelton is professor emeritus of social work at UNLV. He has been involved in child welfare for nearly 40 years and has authored numerous publications on the subject.