|Clark County Manager Virginia Valentine is reportedly reviewing 82 cases in which the office of the district attorney claims the count|
|y Department of Family Services returned children to dangerous homes or would have failed to remove them quickly had prosecutors not intervened.(This was written by Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va.)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.
Because 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? Absolutely nothing — because I would have publicized only the cases that supported my point, and ignored the rest. For exactly the same reason, the list that the Clark County district attorney’s office is waving around, of 82 cases in which DFS allegedly left children in harm’s way in their own homes, also proves absolutely nothing.
Even worse, the D.A.’s office is endangering the very children it wants to protect. While that certainly is not their intent, the behavior of the D.A.’s office is putting children’s lives at risk — all so the D.A. can cling to a failed, duplicative system that is used almost nowhere else in America. The people in that office probably really believe that system helps children. They are dangerously mistaken.
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. That’s what professor Leroy Pelton of the UNLV School of Social Work did. His case reading, published in a leading peer-reviewed journal, found plenty of examples of needless removal of children from their homes in Clark County.
But that’s not all we know:
—In Nevada, children are torn from their families at a rate 70 percent above the national average and more than double and triple the rates in states that are, relatively speaking, models for keeping children safe. Also when these cases get in the system sometimes, it is almost impossible to get them out. Also the time frame to do an adjudicative hearing is absurd. I have a matter that has used four trial days since January and it is STILL not finished.
—We know that while DFS still has huge problems, there’s been real progress, particularly in reducing the warehousing of children at Child Haven. More than a century of research tells us that even the best institutions harm children. And Child Haven was anything but the best. I am aware of no other place in America which had such a barbaric way of warehousing children — even babies — stacking them up like cordwood in the gym of an overflowing orphanage. But this progress isn’t nearly enough.
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 district attorney 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 district attorney 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. Does the D.A.’s office know about the two massive studies of 15,000 typical cases which revealed that the children left in their own homes fared better even than comparably maltreated children placed in foster care?
If the district attorney isn’t aware of that, he has no business running a rogue child welfare agency out of his office.
Almost everywhere else in the country, including places that are among the leaders at keeping children safe, lawyers for the government in child welfare cases represent the child welfare agency. Children are represented by their own law guardian. In theory, parents also are represented, though the quality of that representation often is seriously lacking.
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. But that’s what the D.A. does, whenever he happens to disagree with DFS. So it’s no wonder the director of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law says that most of the rest of the country has this right — and places like Clark County have it wrong.
Assistant District Attorney Teresa Lowry (kudos to Teresa for telling it the way it is!) herself actually put it best when she said, “The question is, are the right children being removed?” and then insisted that they are not. 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 district attorney’s office worried about that? Unfortunately, There are so many cases that they can’t keep track of all of them. But there is nothing else to do but to keep trying.
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Mace J. Yampolsky is a Board Certified Criminal Law Specialist, 625 South Sixth St., Las Vegas, NV 89101; He can be reached at: Phone 702-385-9777 or fax 702-385-300. His website is located at: www.macelaw.com.