Can a child welfare system that is “broken” be repaired by those who sat in power or looked the other way as it continued to decline? Can citizen watchdogs and concerned families who were affected and complained about system atrocities work alongside a panel of leaders and system insiders to create a surge toward measurable improvement?
Will system improvements happen with rapid progression rather than at a glacial pace? Will more children be saved from negative outcomes due to dysfunctional homes or from being lost in a foster care system?
That is only part of a set of questions raised by child welfare and family rights advocates, citizens for reform, and outspoken activists such as Melody Nelson, who sat in meetings held for public input before a blue ribbon commission examining the topic.
The Blue Ribbon for Kids Commission, convened last year by Nevada Supreme Court Justice Nancy Saitta, is affirming in a written final report that change can and will be made to fix much of what’s been amiss with the Division of Child and Family Services, the Clark County Family Court and law enforcement officials involved in child welfare
cases, and the foster care program.
The commission released its findings and issued a public report last Friday at the Regional Justice Center. Saitta offered some answers to system problems and promised to continue her commission’s work to ensure immediate, ongoing and “meaningful” improvements to the departments responsible for ensuring child welfare, courtroom justice and safe foster care programs.
After investigation and research over a planned 120-day period and looking into many of the system’s problem areas, the commission’s final report listed some of the matters requiring immediate work to resolve and other areas that require long-term solutions.
Saitta said that some solutions were not complicated but others will require a collective effort on the part of judges, lawyers, case workers, department heads, the public, foster parents, and others in the process. Some of the problems were fixed along the way because certain entities just needed to “talk to each other,” she said.
Saitta and commission members voiced their confidence that the commission is highly willing and able to arrive at a resounding yes to those opening questions. Saitta and each commission member said the findings and next steps outlined in the report are just “a start” and structured action will follow.
Nelson says she’s heard that several times before. Saitta and her commission members may soon be able to show Nelson and others, many of whom have been longtime critics of the child welfare system and Family Court, that this time it’s for real.
The report did not come at the 120-day turnaround, but it was not much beyond that. “[We’re] happy we took the [extra] time we took to [do the substantive work we did], said Saitta. As part of her summary she asked, “Where does that leave us? With a lot of work to do!”
Saitta stated one of the goals is to “[create a commission on child welfare that will be longstanding and permanent].”
At the conclusion of Saitta’s statements underscoring the commission’s findings and recommendations it will implement toward improving conditions for at-risk children and families, commission members spoke echoing her promise to make the system “a child- and family-centered entity.”
There are eight others on the commission Saitta chairs: Susan Brager, Clark County Commissioner; Barbara Buckley Esq., Executive Director, Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada; Steve Wolfson, Clark County District Attorney; Jeff Wells, Assistant County Manager, Las Vegas; Thom Reilly, Director Morrison Institute of Public Policy Professor
School of Public Affairs, Arizona State University; Deborah Schumacher Judge (Ret.), Second Judicial District Court Family Division; Amber Howell, Administrator State of Nevada Division of Child and Family Services, and Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman.
Seven key points were outlined in the report, along with a correlated plan for creating change in those respective problematic areas, as well as a call for all stakeholders to serve an active role in implementing changes according to plans. Above all, the commission pledged it would hold itself and administrators and staff in the system accountable.
She was asked whether her commission experienced any barriers or blocks to getting information or reluctance to participate on the part of sitting administrators or department heads. She, as well as other commission members, said it was surprising how “open everyone was” to speaking “candidly” about the problems. Saitta said it was a “safe”
environment when they spoke to department leaders and their staffs.
Despite child welfare reform underway, some advocates have called for leadership changes. Saitta made no mention of whether any staffing changes or changes in administration were forthcoming in the departments and courts that handle child welfare cases.
“…What [hasn’t happened] is getting rid of the same people who’ve been [responsible for the problems],” Nelson later commented.
Saitta stated after the presentation, “Everyone was ready to put on a ‘reform hat’ and look at their piece of the [work toward the solutions].”
Nelson is willing to be cautiously hopeful, but has felt let down many time before. She said she will continue to watch, as will the Las Vegas Tribune’s ongoing news coverage on the progress of Saitta’s commission as the implementation process goes forward.
The system is multifaceted, complex and bears the burden of caring for a growing population of children in Clark County. Critics and media reports have exposed egregious acts of abuse, child deaths, systemic problems, and other serious matters that have occurred with the Division of Child and Family Services at the helm.
There have also been many success stories of family reunification after foster care, court intervention or other support from the child welfare system. Overall, data shows the good and the bad, but it is unacceptable for there to be children who fall between the cracks because of service gaps, inefficiencies and neglect by a system with too many unchecked problems. Saitta wants that to stop and vows to lead her commission and others in achieving that goal.
Did the commission do what it promised the public during earlier meetings? Saitta feels it did by gathering information from interviews with staff and management, digging into data and hearing from people in nearly every area of the child welfare and Family Court system, along with public input.
The meeting on Friday was sparsely attended compared to the standing-room-only meetings during public input. The public information office for the Supreme Court was not asked about the short notice the Las Vegas Tribune, and possibly others, received; it was pointed out that the entire 60-page report, which was made available in hardcopy for all who attended, was posted online last week for anyone to download. Go to the nvcourts.gov website, click on Administrative
Offices, then to Committees and Commissions, where the link to the commission’s final report appears along with other documents.
Saitta, says she set out to make a positive difference as chair of the panel—especially now—regardless of past panels’ efforts or obstacles or other issues that have not fixed the system; the report seems to be evidence that her efforts and those of her commission members are unified and ready to do some “real hard work.”
There has been ongoing attention focused on many aspects of what’s been called a “broken system” by the commission and citizen groups. Saitta’s passion for helping children and families was apparent in her voice tone and face during her Friday presentation.
The Las Vegas Tribune has run many stories over the years showing some of the problems and how families have been adversely affected by breakdowns between departments and questionable actions taken by case workers, judges, law enforcement officials and others in the departments that are charged with deciding when children can remain in a troubled home, when they should be removed, where they are placed, for how long and with whom, and so forth.
The commission set out over three months ago to look at data, hear personal accounts and seek input from administrators, staff, court officials, foster parents and others to look into obvious problems that have been present in the child welfare and protection system in Clark County, as well as in other areas of the state.
Now that the commission’s report is released, there seems to be a plan of action and a desire for change that will mitigate some of the problems and put in place a plan with real action, not just talk, according to Saitta and each member of the commission.
“Better outcomes for children and their families” is the goal and preventing any from becoming “lost in the system.”
Saitta thanked her small but dedicated staff for their help with preparing the commission’s final report on how the entire complex system of child welfare and foster care can be improved.
District Attorney Steve Wolfson said in his closing comments: “We didn’t mince words. We said it straight. We said it like needed to be said.”
Nelson was unable to attend but says she looks forward, along with countless others, to hearing more about what the commission will do—no, make that seeing some real results, not hearing more talk this time, she said.
“My [main] concern is that the same people who have been in charge and have fallen short of the goal are the same people [that are still in place]… I’m just not impressed with those people carrying out what
[the commission] sets forth. ”
Nelson heard parts of the report and Saitta’s reported comments and stated: “…There have been commissions and investigations, but nothing ever seems to change. I am not impressed.”
She quickly added, “I’m definitely appreciative of what [Justice Saitta] has done so far. It seems as though she’s taken giant steps, giant leaps, to try to improve the problem in the last few months.
…She has a long history of being concerned about children and child welfare… Out of all of the people… she would have to be chosen as the go-to person… She’s one of the most powerful women in the state.”
Nelson also lays out certain things the commission ought to do to make the work “transparent,” accountable and lasting. She suggests bringing in an outside, qualified child advocacy entity for oversight.
“I would be impressed if they put someone in charge to [oversee] things. My recommendation would be the Executive Director Denise Tanata [Ashby] of Children’s Advocacy Alliance because she has the experience and the expertise to make sure things are transparent…
She’s an advocate of children… so I know she’s not going to go in there and [placate the current administrators] and those other people.”
Nelson also suggests that an entity outside the state might more quickly spot problems that local agencies don’t want exposed. “I would suggest… something like the Lincy Institute at UNLV.”
In addition, she wants the commission to give more than a day or two of advance notice when public meetings or significant announcements will take place. She stated, “I definitely would have been at the presentation of the final report, but I was reading [the notice] about the meeting just about the time it was happening.”
She added that whenever subsequent public meetings are held, as were promised by Saitta, the room should have a far greater capacity than the approximate 50-person capacity of her courtroom. Nelson suggests holding them at the Government Center in the Clark County Commission Chambers.
That suggestion for more room should be met with acceptance by the commission. “The public can and should be a resource for children in the foster care system… Children coming from foster care can succeed,” Saitta said. She promised “ongoing public hearings with an eye toward keeping the public informed.”
She emphasized that the general public has to become involved in the solution, further detailing that the foster care program needs to expand to include more caregivers. The public’s awareness of the
foster care program’s mission will help fill its need for more foster homes. That, she says, is a public education effort that must be orchestrated.
In addition, the commission recommendations include: expansion of CASA or Court Appointed Special Advocates; aiding children who are aging out of the system; keeping sibling groups together; providing more support for extended family members to gain custody when appropriate; and advance notification to other family members who may be able to
take custody when children are likely to be removed from a dysfunctional home.
It is further recommended that the various entities in the system acquire funding for increasing training of staff, re-training, cross training of all employees and other working stakeholders, from case workers to judges presiding in Family Court. And those are just a few of the issues now on the work list of Saitta’s team and their respective organizations.
In addition to delving more into the seven key findings and proposed solutions, in a series about the Blue Ribbon for Kids Commission’s Final Report, the Tribune will offer Saitta and members of her panel an opportunity to reach out to the local community through a new section focused on families and children. Saitta and other commission members and stakeholders are invited to be guests on RadioTribune.com to explain the child welfare system, address public concerns,
disseminate public information about foster care and how citizens can help out families with children in crisis, as well as share the progress and victories toward improving the beleaguered child protection, welfare system and the Family Court.