Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008 | 2 a.m.
- Runaway girl found in shallow grave identified (8-4-2008)
- Two arrested in runaway teen girl’s death (8-3-2008)
- Too many children call city streets home (7-20-2006)
- Youths who 'age out’ hit roadblocks (7-14-2005)
- Center opens for homeless youths (5-3-2005)
- Partnership working to help homeless teenagers (6-21-2002)
Vanessa is a soft-spoken 12-year-old, but she could pass for 16. It’s noon and she hasn’t slept in at least 24 hours, but her makeup is still intact. She wears a hot pink T-shirt and a single strand of blue Mardi Gras beads.
She says her meth-addicted mother kicked her out of the house the night before, and she and her 10-year-old brother rode the bus and walked the Strip all night with her 14-year-old cousin, Amber, and a 9-year-old they call their brother, but who isn’t a blood relative. Both girls’ names have been changed because they’re minors.
They’re among the more than 300 teenagers the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth estimates to be living on the streets of Las Vegas any given night.
By morning, the four children are hot, weary and hungry. They call a hotline at the partnership — a phone number that is mentioned regularly on hip-hop radio station KVEG. A staff member collects them from in front of Bally’s on the Strip, feeds them lunch at Del Taco and brings them back to the agency’s storefront drop-in center near UNLV.
That’s where Kathleen Boutin pulls the two older girls aside.
“I ran away when I was 13,” Boutin tells Vanessa. “I used to be where you are.”
When Boutin, 41, was a teenager, it was a crime to run away from home. More than once she was declared “unmanageable” by juvenile authorities, doused with bug spray, strip-searched and taken to Juvenile Hall.
All for escaping physical abuse at home.
That’s when she decided to someday help runaways, abandoned kids or foster children who are labeled bad even when they’re not.
She lobbied to change a 1902 law that allowed police to arrest runaway children and that prohibited social service agencies from providing minors with food and shelter without their parents’ permission.
The work led Boutin to found the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth in 2001. On the door is a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”
The organization’s goal is to end homelessness, but in the short term, it addresses the day-to-day needs of street kids — showers, phone cards and food — and offers a community of peers and adults who know life on the streets.
When Boutin calls Amber into the center’s conference room, the 14-year old curls up in a chair and looks at Boutin sideways. Her blond hair falls into eyes heavily rimmed with black liner.
Home, Amber explains, is a motel the kids call the Homeless Suites, where Amber’s mentally ill mom and her aunt do drugs and drink heavily with a man the kids can’t stand.
Amber sounds like a tough kid, but as she tells her story, she starts to tremble. “I’m shaking, and I don’t know why,” she tells Boutin.
Amber was in the child welfare system as a 6-year-old, and she doesn’t want to return. She lived for a time at Child Haven, Clark County’s shelter for abused and neglected kids, and remembers being sick constantly, spitting up blood, and later living with “crazy” foster parents. “I can’t trust Child Haven,” she said.
But she’s not sure where she can go. Her dad is in prison. An older brother is deployed in Iraq. Maybe her great-grandmother in California will take her in.
By law, Boutin must report child neglect to the county’s child abuse hotline, and she thinks this is a clear case.
Ideally, her report would trigger an investigation of the girls’ allegations by child welfare workers. If investigators found that the kids’ moms had indeed kicked them out, and that they were using drugs, they’d find a safe place — a foster or group home for the children until their parents could get clean. They might reunite Amber with her great-grandmother in California.
Still, a good outcome is far from a sure thing.
Clark County’s Family Services Department came under fire in 2005 after it was found to be underreporting child deaths countywide and failing to investigate them adequately.
Studies commissioned by state and county officials found nearly every aspect of the agency — from its child abuse hotline to the safety of children in foster care — subpar.
Tom Morton, who previously directed the Child Welfare Institute in Atlanta, was brought in to clean up the agency. It still draws criticism for failing to prevent deaths such as that of 4-year-old Jason Rimer, the disabled boy who died in June after his parents left him in a locked car for an estimated 17 hours. Child welfare workers had received at least 20 allegations of abuse and neglect against the family, but proved unable to protect the boy.
Boutin thinks that for kids as young as the four in her office with drug-addicted moms, the child welfare system — with all its flaws — is the best option.
But she has to get past the hotline workers who serve as the system’s gatekeepers.
The county’s hotline caseworkers don’t always see things Boutin’s way. When her staff calls to report abuse or neglect of older kids, their cases are often deemed not serious enough to warrant investigation, Boutin says.
Take the 15-year-old boy who said his sister had tried to stab him with a knife. He told his mother, whose response was to kick him out. The boy had been in town for only a month and, not knowing where to get help, went to a hospital. Nevada Partnership entered the picture, with case manager Irelynn Klouda calling Clark County’s child abuse hotline to report neglect and then finding the boy a bed for the night. Four days later, he was back at the hospital — his mother had thrown him out again, and child welfare officials still hadn’t investigated. Klouda placed another hotline call, and investigators from the Family Services Department finally arrived at the boy’s house.
The call about the 15-year-old boy should have been investigated within 24 hours, the Family Services Department’s Morton said.
Calls about older kids aren’t screened out as a matter of policy, Morton said. But “I’m not saying it isn’t happening.”
“There have been issues with decision making at the hotline with this agency for a long time,” Morton said.
A 2006 investigation of the hotline found that about 15 percent of hotline calls were handled inappropriately, and Morton said conditions there haven’t changed much.
This fall, he said, he’ll implement clearer guidelines for call screening and streamline decision-making procedures. But training of hotline workers remains a problem. They’ve received little training, and there’s no state money to provide it, Morton said.
Klouda hasn’t seen her 15-year-old client again; all she knows is that a couple of nights later he again called the Partnership’s hotline. Once more, a staff member picked him up and took him to the shelter for the night. Klouda doesn’t know where the boy is or whether he’s fallen through the cracks of a struggling child welfare system.
At the drop-in center, Amber and Vanessa tell Boutin they want to go to WestCare, which runs a private shelter, and bypass the child welfare system altogether. But Boutin knows the kids can leave WestCare at will, and she fears the shelter staff will let them go home with their mothers.
She tells them that once they’re settled, they’re welcome to become Partnership clients. They can come to the center’s food pantry, take classes that apply toward a high school diploma, even get help with medical and dental expenses.
(The Nevada Partnership, which gets money through government grants and private donations, also owns a half-dozen condos where kids 16 and older learn to live on their own under the supervision of an adult who lives nearby.)
Krystal Campagna, who works the front desk at the drop-in center, says she sees a lot of kids turning their backs on the child welfare system, and she can relate.
Campagna had spent most of her life shuttling between an abusive father and a series of group homes. But when she was 13, child welfare workers gave her mother, a meth addict, another chance to raise her daughter. Campagna’s mom passed a series of drug tests, but by the time the two had set up housekeeping, Campagna’s mother was using again, and the household got violent and chaotic.
One day her mother threatened her with a knife. Police arrived before she was hurt, warned her to get away from her mom, and suddenly, she was on her own.
Campagna began to bed down on a series of friends’ couches, or at babysitting jobs where she could stay all night. Occasionally she’d sleep in a park in Summerlin or on the bleachers at school.
Campagna remembers her anger, but also her determination to reach goals she’d set in seventh grade — to be the first woman in her family to go to college and to play basketball when she got there.
Campagna proved to be an ingenious survivor. She’s now a College of Southern Nevada student and plans to try out for the basketball team when she transfers to a four-year university next year.
• • •
Boutin punches in the county’s child abuse hotline number on her pink cell phone.
“I’m calling to report neglect,” she says, and answers a slew of questions — names and contact information, whether the kids have been in foster care in the past, and whether there are allegations of abuse.
Then she dials up the kids’ mothers. When Boutin tells Vanessa’s mom that her kids are at the drop-in center, the mother shows no concern or curiosity. “I’m not coming to get ’em,” she says when Boutin says the kids will be at Child Haven later.
Amber’s mom promises to fetch her kids.
Boutin heads to the upstairs game room to sell the kids on the county shelter. The boys stop their air hockey game long enough to groan in protest when Boutin argues that Child Haven is the best place for them. The younger boy has been there before. But finally they all agree they’ll go.
Boutin admonishes Klouda, who’s loading the four into her car, to stand firm with the county when she delivers the kids. Boutin is concerned that Child Haven will refuse to take the children, but Klouda successfully books them into the county shelter’s reception center.
A week later, Nevada Partnership staffers call to check on the four children. There’s no record of them in the system.
Christine Skorupski, a Family Services Department spokeswoman, said the kids are back at home. Investigators determined the kids had not been kicked out by their moms, and deemed their home suitable. Case closed.
But Boutin didn’t agree. “It’s apparent they live in a neglectful home,” Boutin says. “Amber is a classic example of a kid who’ll be on the streets. I’ll bet my life she’ll be back in our drop-in center by Christmas.”