Steps forward on child welfare reform, but Clark County still has plenty of work to do

A police officer answers a call from a mother who, with her husband, had been evicted from the Las Vegas Rescue Mission for missing a curfew. Now the mother doesn’t know where her husband is. She has no income and no way to provide for the children.

The children are taken to the county orphanage — Child Haven — for 72 nights, then returned to their parents, who by then are living in a trailer.

Five months later, the family is evicted, and the children again are placed in Child Haven.

An entry in court records reads: “(The parents) feel that instead of receiving help, they are being punished for their poverty.”

This story is told by professor Leroy Pelton of the UNLV School of Social Work in a 2006 examination of a random sample of cases handled by the Clark County Department of Family Services.

Contrary to the common stereotype, most parents who lose their children to foster care are not sadists or brutes. Far more common are parents like this mother, whose poverty is confused with “neglect.” The good news: This is less likely to happen now than even a few years ago. The bad news: It still happens far too often.

Children no longer are warehoused for weeks or months at Child Haven. At its worst, when babies were stacked up like cordwood in the gym begging for a moment’s attention from shift staff, Child Haven was among the worst places in all of America to put a child.

But even good institutions are bad for children. The very fact of institutionalization, of being cared for by a constantly rotating cast of strangers, does enormous harm to a child; the younger the child, the greater the harm.

So the fact that few children now stay at Child Haven for more than about a day is cause for celebration.

Clark County did it by using former Child Haven staff to recruit a much larger network of foster homes. Other former staff are available 24/7 to call those foster homes to find a placement the moment a child is taken into custody. Most important, Clark County is following the national evidence-based trend and is taking away fewer children in the first place — with no compromise of child safety based on the standard measure used by the federal government, the rate at which children are re-abused.

Of course, not everyone is happy about this. The Clark County district attorney’s office, which runs its own rogue child welfare agency, has tried to sabotage the first steps toward reform by releasing a list of 82 cases in which DFS allegedly wanted to return children to or leave them in unsafe homes.

But Clark County investigates thousands of child abuse allegations every year. Had Pelton had the chance to look at all of them, I’m sure he would have found far more than 82 examples of children needlessly torn from everyone loving and familiar.

The way to know how an agency typically fails is to look at typical cases — a random sample. That’s precisely what Pelton did. He found that the errors go in all directions. Clark County does indeed leave some children in dangerous homes, even as it takes more children from homes that are safe or could be made safe with the right kinds of help.

The two problems are related. The more that caseworkers are overloaded with false allegations, trivial cases and children who don’t need to be in foster care, the less time they have to investigate any case properly, so more children in real danger are missed.

That’s one reason why it’s so important for Clark County to build on these first steps in the right direction.

Another is the enormous inherent harm of tearing apart a family in all those typical cases where the parents don’t fit the stereotype. Two studies of more than 15,000 typical cases found that foster care is so devastating that children left in their own homes fared better even than comparably maltreated children placed in substitute care, whether foster family homes or institutions. Other studies have found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes; the record of institutions is worse.

And there is a long way to go.

Clark County still takes away children at a rate 35 percent above the national average — even when Nevada’s rate of child poverty is factored in. (That’s better than the state as a whole, which tears apart families at a rate 60 percent above the national average). The Clark County rate is more than triple metropolitan Miami and five times the rate in metropolitan Chicago, both places where independent monitors say that as foster care has been curbed, child safety has improved.

Even in Nevada, which spends on child welfare at a lower rate than all but eight other states, progress can be made without spending more, if Nevada spends smarter.

Right now, for example, once a Clark County child is in foster care for about 45 days the state picks up the tab. There is little incentive for the county to invest in preventing foster care, when most of the money will be saved by the state. So Gov. Brian Sandoval’s block grant approach makes sense — though not if it’s accompanied by a huge cut in total dollars.

In addition, DFS needs to be able to keep savings from reducing foster care so they can be used to further bolster services for families.

Most important, parents caught in the DFS net need high-quality legal representation — not to get bad parents off, but to get children out of the system when parents are innocent, and get families the help they need when there really are problems in the home. Counties that have provided this kind of representation have reduced foster care, with no compromise of child safety. Because foster care is so expensive, these programs more than pay for themselves.

And of course, eliminating that wasteful, duplicative rogue child welfare agency in the DA’s office would help. Although the DA’s office claims it’s needed to provide checks and balances, that’s what we have judges for. Give all sides quality legal representation and they check and balance each other, allowing judges to make the best decision in each case.

Richard Wexler is executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (www.nccpr.org).

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