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October 21, 2014

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Budget cuts threaten Family Services lifeline

Caseworker’s passion is protecting children and reuniting families, but state budget cuts threaten these services

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Leila Navidi

A 4-year-old girl sits next to her grandmother during a visit from Heather Richardson of Clark County Family Services.

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Heather Richardson, senior case manager for Clark County Family Services, works 60 hours a week, but is only paid for 40. She works 20 hours a week toward her master's degree.

Brian Sandoval

Brian Sandoval

Heather Richardson has one of her hardest cases yet. The 16-year-old boy has been exposed to deeply dysfunctional family relationships, drug abuse and domestic violence. He is a sweet kid, and clever, but he’s been witness to horrible things. Fate would seem to be urging him to jump into the same polluted pool. He blames himself for his family’s dysfunction, although he’s responsible for none of it.

Richardson, a senior case manager for Clark County Family Services, is trying to drill into him that he has free will, that he can make his own choices.

“You don’t have to be a victim of circumstance,” she emphasizes. “You were a victim, but now you’re a survivor.”

Over time, she’s built trust with the boy, who understandably trusts no one, but last week called her in a crisis for help.

“I’m happy you came into my life,” he says. “I don’t know where I’d be. I’d be dead.”

Before Richardson, he says he could never imagine life after age 20.

Richardson is uniquely qualified for her job with Family Services. At 13, she was taken from her family, spent a day at the county child shelter Childhaven and then lived with her aunt before reuniting with her mother.

Later, in 2003, she served as a foster mother for a year to two of her father’s children, then 9 and 15.

“I know what it’s like to know your parents have made bad decisions, but to still love them. I know what these kids are going through,” she says.

Now she keeps 23 families, all in various stages of crisis or recovery, under her care and supervision, trying to get parents back on the right track so they can be reunited with their children. In the approximately 40 percent of cases when it doesn’t work, she finds a safe adoptive home for the children.

On any given day, 3,000 children in Clark County are living outside their homes because they’ve been removed for their safety. Richardson is one of the frontline soldiers with the difficult and unheralded job of trying to figure out what to do next.

Just as these families are in crisis, county officials worry that state and local budget cuts will erase the gains made by Family Services since 2006, when the county had one of the worst child welfare systems in the country, as a federal official said at the time. Childhaven was overrun with 265 children, and caseloads were more than twice what is recommended by experts.

Under the proposed budget of Gov. Brian Sandoval, caseloads would balloon because the county would have to slash frontline staff by 22 percent, according to Family Services Director Thomas Morton, who testified at the Legislature on Friday about the effect of cuts.

This concerns Richardson, who is doing her best even though the tools she needs to do her job — mental health services and drug treatment beds — just aren’t there.

She begins her days early, getting her own family going. She and her husband have five children between them, ages 2 through 12.

She does a home visit on her way to work at Family Services on West Charleston Boulevard.

After answering e-mail and reviewing and typing case notes, she’s in a county vehicle to begin visiting families. She is required to see every child on her caseload at least once every 30 days.

At the first, two daughters have been removed from a home. The girls were abused by a foster family in another state after being taken from their mother. Richardson wonders if they are making the abuse allegation to get back with their mother.

(To comply with state privacy laws, the Sun agreed not to reveal names and to give limited information about families under Family Services supervision.)

“Kids want to be with their parents. If we can get the parents working on their issues, and get them reunited, then that’s my job,” Richardson says.

Every day, Richardson and the department have to confront two American instincts and try to reconcile them: On the one hand, we hold parental rights and familial autonomy sacred, while on the other hand, we want to protect innocent children from abuse and neglect.

The next house is a success. A woman who lost her mother at 13 became pregnant at 15 and has three children at 19. One of the children had been severely abused. The mother wasn’t at fault, but at the same time, she had clearly created an unsafe atmosphere for the children. The abuser is now in prison.

The young woman didn’t trust Richardson. But after months of battle, Richardson won her over. The young woman and her children live in a decent suburban neighborhood. She’s working toward a high school diploma.

As Richardson is leaving, the children embrace her, hugging her legs.

Richardson, who’s been working with families for three years and the department for six, earns a fairly modest salary, but the taxpayers are getting a great deal for the hours she works. She’s studying for a master’s degree at UNLV, which requires a 20-hour-per-week internship, which she’s completing, unpaid — for the county. She works at the Southern Nevada Children’s Assessment Center, which is, for lack of a better term, a one-stop shop for child abuse victims. She’s getting training in investigations and developing training programs for parents who have foster children who have been victims of sex abuse. So while raising her five children, she’s working 60 hours a week and getting paid for 40.

Some cases are easier than others. Amy has six children and lives in a clean, well-kept two story. Her children are smart and well adjusted, but she had something like a nervous breakdown after a boyfriend threatened her. She was taken to psychiatric facility, given some drugs and released.

“Even though she hit a bump in the road, her parental capacity is at a higher level than a lot of people,” Richardson notes. Even though Amy and her children are fortunate compared with other cases, it seems evident Amy suffers from an undiagnosed mental health issue, perhaps post-traumatic stress disorder from when she was abused as a child. At least, this is what a therapist told her when he gave her drugs and sent her on her way.

In fact, when you drive around on Richardson’s rounds, you come to realize that there’s an epidemic of undiagnosed and untreated mental illness in the valley, and little in the way of services to help people. Most of Richardson’s clients can’t get Medicaid, the federal/state health insurance program for the poor and disabled — Nevada has one of the stingiest of any state in the country. And for those without Medicaid, “Our mental health system is a nightmare.”

And so, very often, there’s nothing standing between Richardson’s clients and prison or death, except Richardson.

Even though the 16-year-old boy took a step back last week, Richardson knows he’s not lost. He’s still on track to be reunited with his mother, who has had her own rough road for nearly a decade. “It’s because I don’t give up. I tell him what he did wrong, but I don’t cast him aside like everyone else. My care for his safety and well-being are unconditional. There’s nothing he can do to change that.”

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  1. How much money will we save in the long run as a result of these draconian cuts? We will spend more on police and criminal justice expenses as this cruel and heartless Governor caters to the very wealthy and the foreign gold mining interests.

    The wreckage that this man will leave the state as he tries to keep a childish "no taxes" pledge to the creepy talk radio/Fox News crowd will plegue us well into the future.

    Recent polls have shown that Americans do not want these types of cuts, and prefer taxes be raised on the rich, oil companies and foreign gold grabbers.

  2. Republicans like Sandogibbons couldn't care less about these children as long as foreign mining corporations continue to pay less than 1% of their yearly profits in taxes. If they were taxed like other Nevada businesses, there wouldn't be a budget problem. However, Republicans like Sandogibbons would rather hurt children, the elderly, the infirm, and working families than have foreign corporations pay their fair share as they haul Nevada's gold and silver out of the country at almost no charge.

  3. Recall governor and in the meantime turn the gov's house into a shelter for the homeless.

  4. $2.1 Billion/year in foreign aid was going to Egypt alone before Mubarak left. Estimates of his family's wealth was between $50 to $70 billion.

    With America today, dictators get foreign aid and wealthy Americans get tax breaks and store that liquid cash to buy up Real Estate during recessions which occur regularly every 4-5 years. 51% of the homes in Las Vegas are now bought with cash...there is no recession at the top.

    In eight years, Bush had two large recessions, the second being the biggest since 1933 due to greed alone. These recessions are allowed to happen because they destroy jobs, create havoc and turmoil while the wealthy make out like bandits.

    Had enough?

  5. Gee, let's all get out the hankies! More government is apparently the answer according to the "tax & spend" crowd. Ugh! Child "Protective" agencies are filled with inept, uncaring & unaccountable bureaucrats whose excuse, when a child goes missing or is killed because of their negligence, is always, "He/she fell through the cracks." And you leftists think the answer is more money? Give me a break! How about assigning responsibility and accountability to parents instead of blaming society for their shortcomings? No, no, it takes a village according to bone-head, brain-dead, pinko-leftists. Sorry, it takes parents who care and willingly sacrifice for their children's welfare. No one else can or will do it for them.

  6. I would like you " mred " to show me and GOD and all Good people in Nevada where are all these polls....You speak of. Kool-aid man

  7. If you Hate this Man so much why I say why did you vote him in office or did you even vote...?

  8. "Under the proposed budget of Gov. Brian Sandoval, caseloads would balloon because the county would have to slash frontline staff by 22 percent, according to Family Services Director Thomas Morton, who testified at the Legislature on Friday about the effect of cuts."

    Governor Sandoval is a diehard Republican Party right wingnut.

    He don't care about people.

    He only cares about money.

    Those people who need specialized help can go to hell and be thrown in prisons for all he cares.

    They could even die, bodies piling up, and he would complain it is costing too much money to bury them properly.

    Social injustice on top of unfairness on top of corruptness on top of party politics will continue.

    No difference at all from the past Governor to this new one.

    Why people voted a Republican Governor into office again after that failure Gibbons is beyond me. Especially when the new one continues without any noticeable break in policies at all and no discernible difference from the last one. All hail the new..um...same old type of Governor who will end up raping this State dry in order to continue failed and antiquated party politics.

    Life in Nevada under a Republican hell continues.

    Except if you're filthy rich, a corrupt politician, own a casino, work in mining and/or you're a career criminal. Then I guess it's utopia for those who are users...and not helpers.

    You just sit back in comfy chairs, smoke cigars, drink expensive cognac and laugh at the little people and deride them for letting you do it to them regularly.

    Governor Sandoval will take care of them, pander them to get their money. But to the average citizen of the Sovereign State of Nevada, he will henceforth be known as Governor Dracula. Just suck the lifeblood out of the middle class to feed the filthy rich and the corporations.

    As a matter of fact, I wouldn't doubt that, as I'm typing this, he's probably watching his good old buddy Governor Walker in Wisconsin to see if he is successful in his quest to bust unions. Because it's a known fact Governor Dracula would ABSOLUTELY love to do that here in Nevada too.

    Where do we get these guys?!?!!?

    And why are people continually misled and confused by them so easily to vote them in again, especially when they run on a platform where they don't think of anything new that would help anyone...or even run on a platform where they won't tell people what they will do when and if they get into office?!?!!?

    It's madness.

  9. Child protective services in Nevada are not great now but this fine column shows how they have improved exponentially in the past 5 years. We were making progress, and doing what a community should do: invest in its children, not only because it's morally right to do but as a key to a safe and prosperous future.

    Sandoval and his right-wing cheer-leading squad would rather see Nevada become like Bangladesh: with our children begging and dying in the streets. What kind of an immoral society will this slash-and-burn ideology create? Who would want to live here if it succeeds?

  10. Cut the funding even more and get the liberals off their lazy bungers and get a job, don't stop there, stop funding all illegal's and their anchor babies. Close the doors to free medical and free everything, we're sick of it.

    You're are a bunch of whining little cry babies that select a few to use as your poster child that actually need help and then you expect us to take care of the entire gene pool of no good for nothing lazy liberals who choose to suck off the system as their preferred career choice. We're done and I don't care what happens to any of them.

    To put simply, America can't afford liberals and their sick policies anymore and we're done enabling your followers. It is about time they suffer the earned consequences they made and reap the benefits of their sick pathetic life styles.

  11. GUT the thieves in public unions (highest paid in the U.S.) and we will have plenty of money
    Highest paid public servant (oximoron) in Nevada in 2009 was READY FOR BIG SURPRISE;
    A Fireman at $444,000.00
    Use R.I.C.O. , confiscate assets (like other organized crimminals) imprison

  12. More racist and hate comments from the Birdie. It is outrageous that the Sun tolerates this.

  13. A huge population in Nevada are folks who have immigrated to the USA, and to Nevada, to the world destination of Lady Luck-Las Vegas. Now, decades of Nevada politicians have catered to the needs of gaming/resorts/tourism, mining, and construction. These giant corporations have been given the wink of the eye and quiet nods to carry on using the droves of transient populations (most of whom are illegal to be here in the first place), building their vast mega-million/billion empires under the corporate umbrella, and NOT be required to be taxed as the citizens of the USA and Nevada are.

    This simply needs to stop. Tax these giants with parity to the citizens that live here. The big free ride/draw for businesses to come to Nevada has proven that it is NOT GOOD for the people of Nevada. If the politicians refuse to reform the tax structure to fit with modern age and current population, then Nevada will become a boom or bust Ghost Town/State of the USA. Also, enforce the immigration laws that even already exist on the books in the USA, make jobs available to Americans who are not sending money to people/families in other countries (or tax such a practice, please). Keep jobs and money working here in America and Nevada. Support our families HERE.

    On another note: teachers who have nearly 2/3 of their class in poverty and multiple cases of children who are wards, face a problem with being able to serve these children, as these children typically do not receive much needed services in a timely way, so the affected children are UNABLE to perform to the best of their real ability and test accordingly. When you evaluate teachers, tie their careers and employment to student test scores, please keep that in mind and allow for it!!! Otherwise, there will be many teachers who will transfer to schools and teach only student populations that do not have such problems, which aggrevates the issue even further. Thank you!

  14. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41876558/ns/...

    Here is one of the polls that the dittoheads don't want to look at.

  15. No Birdie, you are nothing but a frightened little person who spews hate and racism and thinks it is political discourse. I pity you.

  16. REDM: I followed the link you posted and I came away with the thought they show that people who put nothing into the system want to keep up the spending.

    Turrialba: You cant help but feel sorry for the poor self hating like the Birdie, self loathing is the only way of life they know and their hate and racism is all they have.

  17. Still - No missile systems in Poland have been cut from the budget. Those systems will "Save Lives by protecting Polish citizens from an Iranian attack".

    To "save people in Poland" (which are not in danger whatsoever) we destroy American lives with unlimited military spending. 50% of which is discretionary, i.e. to protect against "perceived threats" and 10x more threats lying in the wings for funding.

    Destroy America to protect Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, on and on, from Iran. Don't forget Saudi Arabia either - they are also worried about Iran. This is the Conservative "Plan" for "Peace in Our Times", i.e. bankrupt America and blame it on the Unions, the illegal immigrants and Government employees. Good Grief: Insanity personified.

  18. Are these the "family values" Sandoval believes in??

  19. Wow....there are comments on here that make me weep for humanity. It literally makes me sick to my stomach to read comments like this one:

    "You're are a bunch of whining little cry babies that select a few to use as your poster child that actually need help and then you expect us to take care of the entire gene pool of no good for nothing lazy liberals who choose to suck off the system as their preferred career choice. We're done and I don't care what happens to any of them."

    Some may say this person is "trolling", i know people who honestly and truthfully believe this. For them, one bad apple spoils the bunch.