By Parker Philpot
All agencies may have problems of one type or another, but the Clark County agency responsible for protecting the youngest and most vulnerable—the children—has for too long gone relatively unchecked and uncorrected, according to countless family advocates, families who have been inexplicably victimized by agency malfunctions, and media
critics — the Las Vegas Tribune at the forefront.
The pages of this newspaper and programs on RadioTribune.com have been filled for years with articles covering the Division of Child and Family Services and exposing major problems and questionable rulings in several cases that came before the family courts. Accounts of families and children the system not only did not protect, but who instead became targets of abuse and torment or neglect, are proof that deeper investigation into the county’s system is warranted.
This week, the Nevada Supreme Court Justice Nancy Saitta and others have gone on record vowing to look into and correct the “shortcomings” and “deficiencies” in the agency and systems overseeing children’s welfare.
Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Tuesday headline showed a recent development that echoes what the Las Vegas Tribune has been calling for over the years: “Child Welfare Reform Sought.” The front page article announced that a “blue ribbon committee” has been convened to look into problems with the Clark County child welfare system and courts.
The system encompasses Child Haven, the emergency shelter for children in protective custody after they are removed from situations deemed abusive or neglectful; the foster home placement program, and the family court departments that oversee cases involving children with one or both parents in some type of dysfunctional or unhealthy living condition or embroiled in family custody battles.
An emailed statement about the committee from Public Information Officer Michael S. Sommemeyer from the Administrative Office of the Supreme Court of Nevada stated: “[Saitta] has asked a group of Nevada leaders to serve on a blue ribbon committee to look into deficiencies in the Clark County child welfare system and courts. The panel, which will meet over the next four months, will make recommendations for county action and/or legislation to be passed in the 2015 state legislative session.”
The committee was convened as a part of the Court Improvement Program for the Protection and Permanency of Dependent Children Saitta is presiding chair.
“Action needs to be taken immediately to address these shortcomings that are jeopardizing the well-being of children in Clark County,” said Saitta.
Among those chosen for the committee are Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman; County Commissioner Susan Brager; former Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, currently the executive director of Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada; Nevada Health and Services Director Amber Howell, along with Second Judicial District Judge Deborah Schumacher.
“These children deserve better, and I get no sense of urgency on the part of the system. This committee will identify the most serious issues in the child welfare system and work with [county] officials to make sure they are corrected quickly,” Saitta further stated.
One local activist and fighter for the rights of families with children, Melody Nelson, said she was “taken aback” when she saw the front page article and pointed out causes for concern despite the seemingly favorable news. Nelson, who has dedicated her efforts to seeing progressive change and correction for families and children, who have become involved in the system and the courts, is “apprehensive” about the suggestion of immediate changes by this committee.
“The committee is expected to meet three times over the next four months, with the first meeting scheduled for October 7… The panel will complete its work by January 30, 2015 so that recommendations can be taken to the legislature when it convenes in February, if necessary,” according to the statement.
Nelson says not only are changes necessary, but children’s lives and the fabric of too many families are being torn apart while the problems in the system grow more serious and pervasive. Nelson has first-hand insight from her involvement as a grandmother who has had an ongoing struggle seeking protective custody of her blood relatives
— her grandchildren. She says her experience is why she advocates so vigorously for the rights of families and children, aiding others with problems with the system or courts.
“Everyone named on the panel has been involved in this very system for years. So what is the ‘urgency’ now? …Is there some violation or new standard that isn’t being met that jeopardizes funding to the area?”
“The only thing that ever really changes with the welfare system reform committees and commissions is the names and faces of the players. Usually ‘blue ribbon’ commissions are formed when the possibility of losing federal money is at stake,” Nelson stated.
These questions and many others should be answered, according to Nelson. She stated that she is disappointed about the committee’s structure and its limited time for investigating, and she has little confidence in any substantive results.
In addition to “Nevada leaders” and elected officials, Thom Reilly, a private sector representative was appointed, according to the news release. Reilly was formerly the Clark County Manager. Sommermeyer responded to the Las Vegas Tribune’s inquiry about Reilly’s selection: “Mr. Reilly serves as the Chairman of the Board for the Children’s Advocacy Alliance in Nevada and he can offer experience to the panel. In addition, he was formerly Vice Chancellor of the University of Nevada Health Sciences System, and of course, was formerly the Clark County Manager. He brings insight, knowledge, and an understanding of the issues to be explored by the committee.”
Responding to questions about the committee, Sommermeyer also addressed the exclusion of a Tribune media representative or any others to the committee, stating that the first of the three meetings is open for public comment.
“The Justice has already assembled the panel, so unfortunately, a member of the Las Vegas Tribune cannot be added. However, you can offer input as this is a public meeting scheduled for 1 pm on Oct. 7 in the Supreme Court courtroom located in the Regional Justice Center, 17th Floor.
Nelson reacted strongly to the list of appointees and the exclusion of certain representatives.
“It strikes me as odd that there are no grassroots advocates. Reilly is on the board of Children’s Advocacy Alliance, but why didn’t they appoint Denise Tanata Ashby, a well-known advocate who directs that organization: She is the one who actually works day to day with families and children. As the executive director, she would have more to contribute toward change than Reilly, a board member. Why wasn’t she or someone in a similar position chosen? I was shocked.”
Nelson said that there are plenty of others who would be more effective and have far more meaningful ”experience” with the “shortcomings” and “deficiencies” the committee speaks of — compared to Reilly and many of the other appointees, no matter how well intentioned they may be.
“There was a blue ribbon committee in Los Angeles who did something similar. Why not bring them or other qualified outsiders in to examine the problems. Some of the same people on this [local] committee were part of the existing problem. It’s like the fox watching the hen house. How are you now going to try to refocus the system when you’ve
been a part of the broken system?” she continued.
“The ones named are high paid people who may have little to no face-to-face understanding of what lower-income people are experiencing in the system.” She added, “Why are there no people of color on the committee?”
Nelson and the Tribune have more questions and will continue to follow the meetings and reports by the committee, as well as continue to cover stories involving child protective agency inefficiencies, child welfare system breakdowns and the latest round of victims.
By Parker Philpot