Thursday, February 7, 2008

FAMILY SERVICES: Agency's practices criticized

Background checks lacking for caregivers of 22 children.

Twenty-two children involved in abuse or neglect cases during the past two months were placed with relatives or family friends before Clark County Family Services caseworkers completed all required criminal background checks on the caregivers.

"This practice will need to cease and desist immediately," Family Services Manager Paula Hammack said in a Jan. 30 e-mail sent out to department employees.

"This infraction is considered egregious in nature as it jeopardizes the safety of children, which is the primary function of our agency."

The internal e-mail was leaked to the public. Its content angered child welfare advocates who have been pressing Clark County to reform its faulty system of care for abused and neglected juveniles.

"Simply because someone is a relative doesn't mean you should presume they are a qualified caregiver," said Bill Grimm, senior attorney for the National Center for Youth Law.

The California-based not-for-profit has a federal lawsuit pending against Clark County and Nevada that alleges child welfare officials are failing to protect the health and safety of children in their care. To Grimm, the e-mail supports that allegation.

"Overall, what this is evidence of is careless attention to the needs and safety of children," Grimm said.

During the past 12 months, children have twice been placed and then removed from relatives' homes because belated federal criminal background checks raised red flags about the caregivers.
Clark County Family Services spokeswoman Christine Skorupski could not detail what safety concerns prompted those removals. In general, she said, any violent crime against a person disqualifies an individual from becoming a child's guardian. No child is known to have been harmed or injured as a result of the improper placements.

Clark County Family Services Director Tom Morton agreed that placing children before caregiver background checks are performed is an unacceptable practice, which is why he directed his managers to tell staff not to do it -- twice.

Morton said he tried to stamp out the practice in July when he first took charge and realized it was happening. In January, when data showed that children were still being placed with relatives before they cleared the criminal background checks, Morton told managers to deliver a more forceful message to field workers.

"When I got the report about the ... cases, I met with my managers to say that we have to act immediately to stop it," Morton said.

That's when Hammack sent out the e-mail, Morton said.

Historically, caseworkers have been able to act independently to place children with relatives or family friends. But under policy implemented by Morton, all placements have to go through the department's receiving team, a requirement imposed partly to avoid inappropriate child placements by individual caseworkers.

Morton said that future end runs around that policy will be considered a behavioral problem on the part of the responsible employee and leave them open to disciplinary action.

"There are a lot of things here for which there have never been consequences," Morton said. "This now constitutes an egregious infraction that jeopardizes the safety of children."

Morton said the problem isn't rooted in a desire to keep the population at the county shelter for abused and neglected children low: Child Haven's new state license caps the number of residents at 80; its population as of Wednesday was 25.

"We have plenty of room," Morton said.

In addition, the problem of placing children with unvetted adults emerged in the summer, before the cap was imposed at Child Haven, Morton said.
But Grimm questions that. The decline in numbers at the once-bulging shelter had Grimm wondering where the children were being put.
"This is at least a partial answer," Grimm said. "They're being placed in danger with unchecked caregivers."

Gary Peck, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, was part of a coalition that persuaded the county to stop using Child Haven for very young children and instead find them family-like settings.

But that needs to happen in a manner that assures the safety of the children, Peck said.
"In a circumstance like this when you're dealing with a matter of this importance, follow-up should have been done to ensure that the directive was followed," Peck said. "Then you don't have to explain later why the problem continues to persist."

Steve George, spokesman for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services, said that Morton has explained the situation to state officials, who are confident that corrective action is being taken. State child welfare officials have oversight of Clark County Family Services. The issue of criminal background checks will be covered by state inspectors during Clark County's next review, George said.

Contact reporter Lisa Kim Bach at lbach@ or (702) 383-0287.

Original Article- - News - FAMILY SERVICES: Agency's practices criticized

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