Monday, August 21, 2006

Viva Las Vegas Foster Care

Between 2001 and 2004, two children died every month while in the custody of Clark County Child Protective Services.

County officials remained mostly silent on the deaths, citing state laws that restrict information about the children from being released or referring to ongoing police investigations into the deaths.

Meanwhile, the number of children dying from abuse and neglect in Clark County nearly tripled during the first six months of this year.

Among the deaths:
-3 year old Crystal Figueroa, whose fragile, broken body was found in a dumpster.
- 2-year-old Adacelli Snyder died in 2005 because of malnutrition due to neglect. She had cerebral palsy. Her body was found in a trailer park. CPS had closed its case on Snyder's family about a year before she died.
-A 7-month-old boy who sustained a head injury while living with a foster parent.

The Child Death Review panel has been investigating 79 cases of foster children who died in Clark County between 2001-2001. Their task was to examine the worst-case-scenarios and try to determine whether or not those deaths could have been prevented.

Panel member Susan Gerhardt said, "We all agree there are serious problems. The system is broken at this point."

Problems cited include:
1.) Poor case management: At a hearing in April 2006, Clark County Children's Services employees stood up and admitted to ignoring forms and processes that would have protected the children.

2.) Lack of incident followup: In one case, it took a social worker more than 500 days to check on the welfare and safety of siblings in a home where a child had died.

2.) Bad record-keeping: The panel found incomplete records of visits to familes and poor communication between agencies put in charge of children.

3.) Overcrowded shelters:
-In June 2006, Child Haven had 205 children, 105 of them age 4 or under, despite the fact that the facility is designed to hold only 84 children and 20 infants.
-In August 2006, as of this week, Child Haven has 146 children and 40 infants.

4.) Length of stay (in shelters) is also an issue: The Department of Family Service's policy is that children shouldn't stay at Child Haven longer than two weeks, but the average stay there is 45 days.

Upon investigation, it was revealed that children were remaining in Child Haven for three to six months, and in some instances a year or longer. One child had been in Child Haven for over two years.

5.) Critical lack of foster homes: More than 2,000 in Clark County, Nevada, are in out-of-home placement because they are not safe at home. Meanwhile, there are only about 900 licensed foster homes in Clark County.

According to Thomas Morton, the new director of DFS, potential foster parents need to understand that 80 to 90-percent of the children living in Child Haven will eventually be reunited with their parents. Apparently, Clark County does not actively promote the foster-to-adopt approach.

6.) Lack of communication: Police did not always report the deaths, and in at least 12 cases, the district attorney did not investigate.

According to Assistant District Attorney Robert Tutin, "If your mandate is to ensure the safety of children and there are not other children in the home, it is not going to be a priority." Tutlin claimed that caseloads were so high that district attorneys had to focus on other cases.

Darryl Martin, Assistant County Manager for Clark County, disagrees, "That is a bad practice. That is an old practice and it has been going on for years." He is working on mandating that officials investigate and report child deaths from now on.

In at least one of the 12 cases that weren't investigated, a parent went on to kill another child.

7.) Overall lack of accountability: The panel recommended a complete overhaul of the Clark County family and child welfare system.

Clark County Children's Services recently hired a new directory, Tom Morton. During his first 15 days on the job, a child was left in a hot van alone by a child haven worker.

The deaths continue:
Meanwhile, 15-month-old Joshua Sharp died at Child Haven last week. He was found unconscious and could not be revived before being pronounced dead at a hospital. This was the second fatality at Child Haven this year.

Impending lawsuit?
Carole Shauffer, executive director for the Youth Law Center, a nonprofit law office in San Francisco that works with abused and at-risk children, is considering filing a lawsuit against the state and county if the issues are not resolved.

The Youth Law Center, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, has given Clark County a series of deadlines to reform the child welfare system in Southern Nevada.

These groups threaten a lawsuit if the deadlines and reforms are not made.

Their goals are:
- To disallow placement of children younger than 6 at Child Haven
- To stop police from removing children in emergency situations without social worker involvement
- To step up efforts to keep children and families together

I wonder:
- Why not open the door for foster parents to foster-to-adopt?
- Will postponing child removal cause more or less child deaths?
- Should families like Crystal Figueroa's be kept together?

However, I wholeheartedly agree with Carol Schauffer that, "The basic policies of the child welfare system are not supportive of the developmental needs of the children."

Blaze, Ashanti. Another baby dies in Las Vegas foster care. KLASTV Eyewitness News, August 4, 2006.
Foster family recruitment in Clark County. KLASTV Eyewitness News, July 25, 2006.
Guzman, Martha. Number of child deaths up this year. KLASTV Eyewitness News, April 5, 2006.
Kihara, David. Infant dies at Child Haven: Death latest in series of woes for system. Las Vegas Review Journal, August 16, 2006.
Kihara, David. Overcrowding: Child welfare groups warn of lawsuits Youth Law Center demands reforms. Las Vegas Review Journal, August 19, 2006.
Kihara, David. State warned about foster system: Conditions have worsened, federal officals say. Las Vegas Review Journal, August 17, 2006.
McCarthy, Alyson. Panel looks for answers into county child deaths. KLASTV Eyewitness News, July 6, 2006.
McCarty, Coleen. Commissioners react to child deaths in Clark county. KLASTV Eyewitness News, June 6, 2006.
Morrison, Jane Ann. A grandmother's gumption helped crack the case of a cowardly act . Las Vegas Review Journal, Feb. 25, 2006.
Official concerned about Clark County foster care. KVVU, Fox 5 News, August 17, 2006.
Plaskon, Ky. Incomplete child death records: Whose blame? KLASTV Eyewitness News, April 21, 2006.

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I was hooked on the story of Crystal Figueroa when it was happening. Before they found out her identity, they called her "Jane Cordova Doe." I found out about it while watching Nancy Grace. There were two pictures of her circulating. One was the composite drawing, which really looked nothing like her. The other was an airbrushed photo of her actual body, taken by the coroner. It was the airbrushed coroner's picture that really got to me. She was such a beautiful girl, and I kept thinking how much I would have loved to have her as a daughter. (Obviously, her scumbag parents didn't). I even had a dream a couple nights later that she was doing all this really fast dancing, almost looked like figure skating in fast motion. It was a creepy dream.
From what I understand, she was not in foster care when she died. She was in the care of her mom and her mom's boyfriend. Her mother's boyfriend killed her, and her mother "Stood by her man" by covering it up for him. They are both in jail now.
The post on child deaths in Las Vegas is accurate and frightening. The most distressing element is that the abuse and neglect of children in the care of Clark County Department of Family Services continues unabated.
The Federal Government has issued demands for reform to the state with the threat of fines totaling near $370,000.00 for non-compliance.
Awareness by the public on a national basis is the only way change will be forced upon these agencies.
The State of Nevada has released a review of child deaths in Clark County and it contains some very disturbing information, specifically about kids who received services from the system be it Child Protective Services, juvenile justice, or mental health. Some are calling this a wake up call others are calling it simply horrifying. Investigative Reporter Colleen McCarty first told us this review was coming.

To give you an example of where we stand nationally, Sacramento County, California had roughly the same number of kids living there as we did in Clark County in 2003. Sacramento County reported one child who died from abuse and neglect that year. Clark County reported 10 with the possibility of an additional 22 children who may be added to that figure upon further review.

What does it mean? Well, that depends on who you ask. But everyone agrees the system can and must do better. It started with the headlines of children dying with connections to the system -- like Adacelli Snyder, a 2-year-old who starved to death, or 14-month-old Jushai Spurgeon, who was scalded to death in his foster home.

The numbers of children dying from abuse and neglect in Clark County nearly tripled during the first six months of this year prompting the state to do a hard-count of all kids who have died in Clark County from 2001 to 2004.

Mike Willden, with the Nevada Division of Health and Human Services, says, "The number one fact is the overall concern of children dying. I mean, absolutely no one working in the system wants to ever have a child die, so that's the paramount situation. But in order to understand all that we have to be able to analyze the data."

According to the report, 1041 children died in Clark County between 2001 and 2004. Of those, 231 were known to the system -- meaning they received some type of social services. Almost half of those children may have died from abuse and neglect. Thirty-five have been substantiated with another 79 cases that need further review.

So do they not allow foster-to-adopt now? I know that Ohio has recently really revised its laws to try and limit kids' time in the foster care system--generally the parent has one year from the time of foster care placement to follow their case plan, and if they can't get it together in that time or show extenuating circumstances, the parents' rights are terminated and the children are made available for adoption, either by relatives, foster parents, or other licensed households.

I wonder if Nevada is similar to Ohio in that there's not a lot of contact between the counties. When we were actively seeking an adoptive placement, I called many counties, and I had several tell me that they didn't need foster-to-adopt or adoptive homes, but they desperately needed foster homes. And yet only a week or so before I went to a training and met a couple in AN adjoining county with one that told me they need foster parents, and they were waiting on more foster placements. But because there was no communication between the agencies, they didn't know the other existed. It would be interesting to see whether there are available foster homes in other Nevada counties that just aren't being made available to the agency in Clark County.
In response to Laina, the county has stopped all foster to adopt licensing and is focusing on foster only.
Take a look at:
The state of Child Welfare in Nevada is in a total mess, with two more children dying while in the direct care of the county just last week.
Speaking as a former foster child, I disagree with their current philosophy.

Foster-to-adopt might be the best and safest option for some foster youth in Nevada.

They could have a real family of their own, rather than being yanked in and out of placements.

Plus if the foster parent pool is that low, chances are not all of the foster parents are the 'cream of the crop,' if you know what I mean...

And if social workers need a "bed" wherein to place a child, they don't have a large enough pool of foster parents to provide a good match.
All of your observations are correct.
The current pool of foster providers are mostly motivated by the income generated by foster kids. Very few really caring foster families doing it for the good of the children.
Why do you suppose they don't have a large enough selection of available foster parents? Are they turning people away for silly reasons?
Poor recruitment efforts by Family Services, no follow through with families that have applied.....just your everyday governmental rhetoric.
My name is Patricia and I found your website from a post you left in my boyfriend's journal.
First, I wanted to let you know that what I thought you said was beautiful, and thank you for extending yourself to someone you don't know.
Second, it thought it was amazing that your story included something that my mom and I have been working on. We both work at the local PBS Station and were one of the few in the country to recieve the Aging Out outreach grant. It was something that we had been previously unaware of and now (even with the grant part of the outreach completed) have these wonderful people in our lives.

Thanks for the great work that you do and thank you for caring enough for others.
CJ, who are these people and why do they hate Morton?

Patricia, please email me anytime:
It is only one person posting on his own site called:
He has been against the hiring of Morton by the county mainly because they didn't do a national search. His reasons for disliking him; he feels Morton is not qualified for the position of director, calls him a snake-oil salesman.
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