Federal class action suit filed against Clark County (Las Vegas) child welfare system

By Steve Kanigher Wednesday, April 14, 2010 | 12:03 p.m.

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.”

7 Responses

  1. i was wonderin how do i go about joining in on the lawsuit against child welfare. because i’m going thrugh the same situation. so if you can contact me i would appericate it alot thanx. 702 475-2306 meisha jones

  2. Can I join in on the lawsuit against the child welfare. My grandson who is autistic was abused while a ward of the state. Please contact me if you can be of help. Thankyou, Jill Blakeley contact me by e-mail .

  3. current foster parent in las vegas,nv I have seen the abuse. 7 and 8 year old children on 12-13 differenr drugs and with each drug comes a side effect that is used against the child.

  4. I was once an employee with DFS and witnessed the treatment as well. I worked my butt off and at times sacrificed a lot of time that should have been spent with my own children. A dollar amount has been attached to each child in care. Nevada also lacks the services to ensure that parents can be reunified with their children. There needs to be more preventative services. Please contact me at luvmyaka1997@aol.com.

    • Hello:my name is Shane . my only son ,Benjamin was taken into cps custody on sept 29,2009,after an “alleged” act of domestic violence,which was subsequently dismissed with prejudice on October 11,2009. I have no domestic history on my record.The natural mother of my son fled the state of nevada to new york with her then 3 year old daughter on October 16,2009. i was given 3 visits a week to my son .my case worker told me that “if i wanted to throw in the towel and giuve up on all of this ,dont worry ,my son was so cute and precious thaT sHe would have him adopted out the next day.(at my first c.f.t.) well 19 months later my parental rights were terminated and ironically enough d.f.s. paid for the natural mother to travel back to las vegas and relinquish her parental rights to the foster parents. all charges were dismissed against the natural mother in the same order terminating my parental rights.i was never even given a final visit with my son.i am 38 now and every day is harder than the last .I miss my son greatly. unity notes actually document the caseworkers intwention to adopt my son 1 month and 18 days after he was taken away by c.p.s. also listed in unity notes is “placement with natural grandmother not even considered as child is doing well with foster placement” that entry was made 1 month after my son was made a ward of the court. i would greatly appreciate to hear from you .i will not annoy u or bother you ,i just have a couple of questions in regards to actual policy and procedure of d.f.s. employees and what better person to ask ,other than one who has worked in that capacity. thank you for your time -shane

  5. I would like to speak with an attorney about giving them some information on a case that 1st took the child away no charge put mom in jail no charge sent child out of state unlawfully and abandonment by 2 states of a minor can you help,.,.,

    • It might be better to deal with an Attorney that is not in Nevada but in the state that the child was sent to. Nevada is behind in how they handle child welfare, so an outside attorney that is licensed to practice here would be good.

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