More lip service on child welfare system

On May 1, six months after a panel of experts identified almost 500 children in Clark County’s child welfare system whose safety could not be determined, the state gave its assurances that all but eight children were safe. The state’s Division of Child and Family Services based its conclusions on a case review it says it conducted.

Its review followed a similar review — with similar conclusions — by Clark County child protective services last February. However, both reviews were based on inadequate and unreliable information that cannot be used to determine the safety and well-being of children. Legislators, county commissioners and the public should demand a broader and more rigorous inquiry and the kind of leadership that will make children’s safety a priority. Failure to do so places the burden of the next child death on all.

The case reviews by both the county and state were prompted by an assessment last fall by a special panel of child welfare experts from outside Nevada. The experts were brought in by Susan Klein-Rothschild, former director of the Clark County Department of Family Services. The panel was charged with doing an assessment of the county’s child welfare system after a state-commissioned study uncovered the child abuse deaths of 37 children between 2001 and 2004 that had never been reported.

The 16-member panel examined more than 1,300 child welfare cases involving children under the age of 6 — the population of children most vulnerable to fatal abuse and neglect. The project manager for this study was Ed Cotton, former assistant commissioner for New Jersey’s Office of Children’s Services and former administrator of Child and Family Services for the Nevada Department of Human Resources.

The cases examined by the panel included 950 cases of children in foster care and 402 cases in which the children remained at home despite the filing of an abuse or neglect report. Among other things, the panel was supposed to determine whether children were safe in their existing placements. Out of 1,352 cases, the panel found that the safety of 467 children was in question, and that 86 cases required immediate action.

In their follow-up reviews, both the county and the state looked at only 53 of the 467 cases because those were the cases used by the panel to illustrate its concerns. Officials ignored the fact that these 53 cases represented just 10 percent of all the children at risk.

Not only is the scale of the state’s review inadequate, but the methods used and the information relied upon are highly questionable. For example, the report does not disclose who or how many persons conducted the state’s review, whether they are state employees or private consultants, or their experience and qualifications.

In addition, the state’s review was based solely “on information found in Nevada’s child welfare case management system, UNITY.” That means the review could have consisted of someone just sitting at a computer and reading entries on a form. We don’t know.

No attempt was made to verify the information recorded in this database, which has been publicly criticized for its lack of reliability. Just a few months ago, a state child death review panel convened by Mike Willden, director of Nevada’s Department of Health and Human Services, concluded that “UNITY produces little, if any, usable information or data.” Yet, in their most recent review, state officials based their conclusions about a child’s safety solely on a completed “safety assessment” recorded in the UNITY database. There were no interviews or visits with the children themselves.

Once again, Willden and Fernando Serrano, administrator of the state’s Division of Child and Family Services, have demonstrated that they believe the appearance of doing something about child safety is enough. A broader inquiry is needed before another child is severely injured or dies from abuse or neglect.

Gov. Jim Gibbons needs to appoint leaders whose actions reflect the real risks to children in Nevada’s child welfare system.

Donna Coleman and Toni Isola-Bayer are members of Demanding Justice for America’s Children, a national child advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.

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