Monday, August 2, 2010

Gambling with children’s lives: Encouraging foster care panic in Las Vegas

It's hard enough for a family caught in the net of child protective services to jump through all the hoops thrown at them by one agency – imagine trying to cope with two. Imagine doing everything required of you by the agency you thought to you had to please, only to find that there's a second, rogue agency out there ready to march into court, contradict the first agency, and demand that the judge keep your children in foster care even longer. And there's nothing that you, or even the first agency, can do about it.

There are a few places around the country like that. And in one of them, the rogue agency is sinking mighty low to try to keep it that way.

The place is Clark County, Nevada – metropolitan Las Vegas. And, though they don't realize it, the District Attorney's office there is putting children's lives at risk in order to cling to its power to stomp all over not only families but the actual child welfare agency.

I'll get to how they're doing it below. But first, some context:

The first thing to know about Clark County is, it's a mess. The State of Nevada takes away children at a rate 70 percent above the national average – a rate double and triple the rate of child welfare systems nationally recognized as, relatively speaking, models.

And Clark County used to be notorious for running what may have been the nation's worst baby warehouse – a parking place shelter where conditions rivaled those found in third world orphanages. I'm not kidding. Just a few years ago, hundreds of children, including infants, were practically stacked up like cordwood in the overflowing gym of a baby warehouse that carries the Orwellian name "Child Haven."

The second thing to know about Clark County is that, in recent years, things have gotten a little better. Child Haven once warehoused hundreds of children. Now, on a typical day, it houses only ten or fewer. And while wrongful removal remains a huge problem, it's a little bit less of a problem than it used to be, thanks to changes at the county's real child welfare agency, the Department of Family Services.

But there are people who, it seems, view conditions a few years ago as "the good old days." And, unfortunately, they work in the Clark County District Attorney's office – which runs that second, rogue child welfare agency I was talking about.


In most of the country the child welfare agency decides what the government's position will be in child welfare cases. They recommend to a judge whether a child should be returned home, or adopted, or kept in foster care. The lawyers who go into court follow the agency's instructions – and the judges almost always do what the agency wants. Children have their own "law guardians" and parents also have lawyers – though the quality of parent representation often is dismal.

A judge can't make the best possible decision unless all sides – child, parents, and child welfare agency, can make their best case in court. Shut out any of those parties and you fail the children.

In much of the country it's the parents who are shut out, either because they get no lawyer at all, or they get one so overwhelmed that they could do as well walking into court with a cardboard cutout in a three-piece suit.

But in a few places, it's actually the child welfare agency that can go unrepresented as well. One of those places is Clark County.

In Clark County, the lawyers who represent the government report not to the child welfare agency but to the elected District Attorney (who, by the way, is up for re-election this year). So if the child welfare agency wants to return a child home, or doesn't want to take a child away in the first place, and the D.A.'s office disagrees, the D.A.'s office is the one who makes the recommendation to the judge – the child welfare agency is effectively silenced.

The absurdity of this is obvious. So it's no wonder the director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law says the way most of the nation does this is right, and the way Clark County and a few other places do it is flat wrong.


This year, some Nevada legislators started to see the absurdity of the Clark County arrangement as well, and they started talking about changing it. Desperate to keep this part of its empire, the D.A.'s office fought back – with a grossly-misleading campaign of fear and smear.

They poured through all their case files and came up with 82 cases in which, they allege, children would have been left in dangerous homes if not for the heroic intervention of the Clark County District Attorney's office. A Las Vegas police captain released a similar list of his own. In both cases, they did not release the actual files, not even files with identifying information removed. Instead they released only their own summaries of each case – in other words, their own spin, which might be a complete and accurate account, and might not – with no way to check. But this was enough for an "investigative" reporter at KLAS-TV.

This reporter's definition of "investigative" was to do little more than take some of the summaries handed to her by the police and the D.A. and read them out loud – accompanied by shaking her head "no" when about to quote the side of the story with which she disagreed. And brief quotes were all that side got. The only on-camera interviews were with the police captain and an assistant district attorney. There were two stories, neither of which mentioned the underlying dispute – or the fact that the release of these lists at this time might have something to do with a power struggle.

The Las Vegas Sun also reported on the D.A.'s list, but the newspaper dug deeper and made clear that this was part of a power struggle.

And what do these lists actually tell us about how Clark County's child welfare agency functions? Absolutely nothing.

Indeed, precisely the same methodology could "prove" precisely the opposite point:

Were I given the file for every case handled by the Clark County Department of Family Services, I'm sure I'd have no problem coming up with 82 cases in which children were taken from safe, loving homes and thrown needlessly into the chaos of foster care. Since study after study has found abuse in one-quarter to one-third of foster homes - with an even worse record in group homes and institutions - I'm sure that, among those cases, I could find plenty in which the children never were abused until DFS took them away.

What would that prove? Also nothing - because I would have publicized only the cases that supported my point, and ignored the rest. And that, of course, is exactly what the D.A.'s office did.

The only way to know how DFS typically behaves is to look at a random sample of cases – not horror stories selected to prove a point. As it happens, such a case reading exists. It was done by one of the nation's leading child welfare scholars, Prof. Leroy Pelton, former director of the Social Work program at the University of Nevada – Las Vegas, and published in a leading peer-reviewed journal. In that representative random sample, Prof. Pelton found plenty of examples of needless removal of children from their homes in Clark County.


In fact, like much of the country, the child welfare system in Clark County, Nevada is arbitrary, capricious and cruel. 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 if the families got the right kinds of help. What the D.A. doesn't get, or chooses to ignore, is that these two kinds of mistakes are directly related.
When caseworkers are inundated with false allegations, trivial cases, and children needlessly removed, they don't have time to investigate any case properly – so they make the kinds of mistakes the D.A. cites. But the solution is not to encourage even more needless removal, the solution is to do more to keep families together, giving workers time to find children in real danger. That's why the national leaders in child welfare are states that take proportionately far fewer children.

Nothing puts children in more danger than a foster-care panic – a huge, sudden surge in entries into care when workers are terrified of being on the front page, or in a politician's line of fire, if they leave a child home and something goes wrong. Over and over across the country, such panics have been followed by increases in deaths of children previously known to child welfare agencies. By encouraging such a panic, the D.A. is increasing the danger to the very children he wants to help.

Some of the best comments on all this actually came, by accident, from one of the very people pushing to keep the rogue child welfare agency in place, Assistant District Attorney Teresa Lowry. At one point, she told KLAS: "You don't want the pendulum to swing so far to either side."

Good point. But, as noted above, in Clark County it swung long ago to the extreme of massive needless removal of children – yet Lowry expresses no concern over this.

Lowry also says: "The question is, are the right children being removed" and then insisted that they are not.

But if the right children are not being removed, then there's only one way Nevada could take away children at a rate vastly above the national average: by taking away the wrong children.

So why isn't the D.A.'s office worried about that?