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July 26, 2014

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THE LEGISLATURE:

Gains in child protection threatened

Legislators poised to strip funding at critical time, county official says

Beyond the Sun

The state’s plan to cut $2.25 million from Clark County’s efforts to protect children comes at a time when more kids are dying from abuse or neglect.

In the first three months of this year, county officials logged six deaths of children related to severe mistreatment, and three more were being investigated for possible addition to that grim tally. During the same period last year, only two children died of abuse or neglect, authorities say.

Tom Morton, the county’s Family Services Department director, wants to keep as many of his 109 child abuse investigators as he can, to try to prevent the death toll from climbing and to keep as many children in safe homes as possible. But if he doesn’t get $2.25 million more from the state, he says, he expects he will have to cut 32 investigators from his staff.

That decrease would likely lead to an increase in the number of children separated from their families, Morton warns, because the remaining investigators would have less time for each case, less time to determine whether the child’s home truly is dangerous. The result will be that investigators will revert to removing more children from their homes.

A similar approach fed into the collapse of the child welfare system in Clark County a few years ago. In 2006, when the county had about half as many investigators as it does now, the average number of new investigations of child abuse each month was 22 per investigator. This year that ratio has been just 10 new cases to each investigator.

When Morton took over as director in June 2006, Clark County’s Family Services Department was being lambasted. A series of reports chronicled horrific and seemingly preventable deaths and injuries of children in foster homes or in homes that had been investigated for alleged child abuse.

In August 2006 the National Center for Youth Law filed a class action lawsuit accusing the county and state of failing to protect the health and safety of children. The lawsuit, on top of the public outcry, spurred the state and county to increase funding for child protective services.

The agency sped up background checks to place children with relatives and pushed to place children in more closely monitored neighborhood-based foster homes within 24 hours of their arrival at Child Haven, the county’s shelter for abused and neglected children.

Another visible measure of change is in the number of young faces at Child Haven.

Monday afternoon: 10. At the height of the county’s child welfare system crisis, on June 10, 2006, the shelter housed 230 children. Infants who were supposed to be in county custody had to be warehoused in hospital nurseries to await an opening at Child Haven.

The fear now, Morton says, is that the funding shortfall will revive the old problems.

Attorney Bill Grimm, senior counsel for the National Center for Youth Law, the Oakland-based organization that sued in 2006, fears that any backsliding will lead to “some really horrible consequences, and some of those will be reports of abuse that will not be investigated and children left at risk to be re-abused, and some will die.”

The state is basically telling the county that if it considers this funding so critical, it should cut other areas of the county budget and allocate that savings to child protective services.

County employees say Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, a Reno Democrat and a top lieutenant of Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, told them in late April it would be easier to muster the money for children’s protective services if the county weren’t giving cost-of-living raises. It was not an ultimatum along the lines of “You won’t get the money unless you stop the raises,” but the message was clear nonetheless, one of the county employees says.

Leslie says she did not tie the two together. She says her point about Clark County’s raises was that “we’re going to have to cut state workers and teachers at least 3 percent, and other county governments are not adding cost-of-living increases and people are losing jobs.”

That Clark County is flying in the face of the rest of the state, she says, “grates but that has nothing to do with” the state funding for child protective services.

The real reason for the budget cut, she added, is that the $2.25 million in the current budget cycle came from a pool of money that disappeared this year because of huge social service needs. To reinstate the money would mean taking it away from other areas in need.

Clark County officials counter that state lawmakers should be able to find this relatively small amount of money for this important need. After all, they add, the state will have to come up with at least $800 million in new revenue anyway. The county doesn’t have the ability to create large streams of new revenue.

Leslie is known for fighting for services for children, but she says the state budget is so tight that so far she has been unable to come up with the money Clark County wants.

She added that if the money isn’t restored, it is not meant as a punishment for Clark County’s paying its employees too well.

“Why would I want to hurt the same child welfare programs I’ve spent years building up? Over COLAs? That’s crazy.”

Leslie says she still holds hope for some solution. She says she will try to resurrect funding for child protective services today when the Medicaid budget is discussed.

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