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December 21, 2014

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Federal class action suit filed against county child welfare system

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A federal class action lawsuit filed Tuesday night in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas accuses state and Clark County officials of overseeing a child welfare system that violates state and federal law.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 13 children by the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif., named as defendants Nevada Department of Health and Human Services Director Michael Willden, Nevada Division of Child and Family Services Administrator Diane Comeaux, Clark County Manager Virginia Valentine and Clark County Department of Family Services Director Tom Morton.

Those officials are accused of showing “deliberate indifference to the health and safety of the children [they are] obligated to protect.” In addition to seeking unspecified damages for the child plaintiffs, the lawsuit demands system improvements for several classes of children in foster care.

Clark County spokesman Erik Pappa said today: "We're not commenting because we haven't had a chance to review it."

Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Ben Kieckhefer likewise said: "We haven't been served yet and we can't comment until we've had a chance to review it with our attorneys."

The lawsuit alleges countless instances of blatant disregard of federal and state law, substandard judgment, neglect and active indifference on the part of child welfare officials and caseworkers. Those individuals were accused of perpetuating abuse by routinely denying foster children stability, health care, and, in many cases, even the most minimal level of safety. In fact, many children are taken from their homes only to be subjected to further abuse, including physical, sexual, or psychological abuse, while in the county’s custody, the lawsuit says.

In one cited example, defendants allegedly placed an infant and her older brother in a foster home where the baby was locked in a closet, and her brother was beaten when he tried to help her. Another plaintiff, now 17, has been in foster care for 15 years and has been shuttled through 40 placements.

The youth law center stated that since 2003, more than 10 studies and reports have documented the defendants’ failure to protect the health, safety and well being of child abuse victims and children in foster care.

Other law firms representing the plaintiffs include Morrison & Foerster LLP, an international, 1,000-lawyer firm with offices in 16 cities, including San Francisco, and Wolfenzon Schulman & Ryan, with offices in Las Vegas, Reno and San Diego.

The youth law center previously sued to reform the child welfare system in Nevada on behalf of different plaintiffs and a different class. The last suit, filed in 2006, was dismissed last year after the federal court declined to certify the class, and all the plaintiffs had either aged out of the system or been adopted.

The center is renewing its efforts for current and future foster care children who it says will continue to suffer until state and county child welfare officials make changes to ensure the safety and well-being of children in their custody.

“Our hope is that going forward, the county and state will commit its time and resources to addressing the needs of children in its care,” says youth law center attorney Bryn Martyna.

The law center said that many of the problems cited in its initial lawsuit persist or have worsened. A 2009 review of Nevada’s child welfare system by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found the state did not meet federal standards for child safety, staff and caregiver training, and children’s physical and mental health, among others.

Among the allegations in the lawsuit:

• Many caseworkers lack even the most rudimentary training, have no supervision, and carry exceedingly high caseloads, resulting in serious injury to children.

• Children are routinely denied mental health, medical, early intervention and special education services.

• Children as young as 7 are prescribed powerful psychotropic drugs, sometimes in combination, without adequate monitoring. Most of the drugs are not approved for use in children. One child named in the suit was twice hospitalized in the ICU for near organ failure due to an overdose of such drugs.

• Caseworkers regularly fail to visit children in their placements.

• Supervisors and caseworkers often “turn a deaf ear” to reports of abuse and neglect in foster care, allowing children to endure further abuse.

• Children sent to out-of-state placements are essentially written off by defendants, who fail to evaluate or monitor such placements, allowing children to suffer further abuse and neglect.

The lawsuit is also demanding that the state and county agencies develop case plans that contain the information foster parents need to properly care for the children in their care, provide representatives for children in court as required under both Nevada and federal law, and provide early intervention services for foster children.

“If defendants’ unconstitutional and unlawful actions and omissions are not halted, many more children will be harmed,” said youth law center attorney Bill Grimm, lead counsel on the case. “And another generation of children will suffer untold misery in the form of abuse, instability and absence of a loving family. Some will suffer irreparable injury or even death, and others will leave the foster care system ill-prepared to live healthy, independent, and productive lives.”

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