Foster parent applicants rarely denied

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A child in foster care on the slide at Child Haven, Clark County's emergency shelter. Photo credit: ClarkCountyNV.gov

Author’s note: Earlier this month the Current reported that a longtime advocate for foster parents and adopted father of five children is alleged in a police report and by family members to have a history of sexual assault.  The allegations prompted questions about the vetting process for foster parents.  

Reports of child abuse and endangerment in Clark County have increased by double-digit percentages or close to it in each of the last four years.  While Clark County Child Protective Services (CPS) is receiving more calls it’s investigating fewer and a smaller percentage of children are being removed from their homes. And although opiate abuse is overwhelming child welfare services elsewhere, Clark County officials dismiss any impact.

Is CPS achieving more success working to keep families together? Or does the agency lack the foster homes to keep pace with demand?

Statistics obtained by the Current reveal Clark County approves almost all applicants to become foster parents – 252 out of 261 in 2017 – a 97 percent approval rate.   A spokesman for Clark County’s Department of Family Services (DFS) says the agency does not know the approval rate for previous years.

“The Department of Family Services’ child placement and recruitment functions here in Clark County have been failing miserably for quite some time,” says Janice Wolf, Directing Attorney of the Children’s Attorneys Project (CAP) for the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.  “CAP has made numerous suggestions and recommendation on how to make things better, but these only seem to have fallen on deaf ears.  The problems are systemic and long-standing and definitely include failure to recruit a sufficient number of quality foster parents.”

A national child welfare expert says an increase in licenses doesn’t necessarily translate to an increase in foster capacity.

“The most important question is how many of those licensed homes had a foster child within three to six months of licensing?” asks Carole Shauffer, Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Youth Law Center, a public interest law firm that works on behalf of children and has long been a critic of Clark County’s system.

“Plenty of people get licensed hoping to get an infant they can eventually adopt,” Shauffer says.  “Some people won’t accept children who are not free for adoption.  Others won’t accept teens.  You can license many homes but not all are willing or able to take children who need families.”

DFS officials declined to be interviewed by the Current but spokesman Dan Kulin says the department doesn’t know how many children were actually placed.

“We do work to match children with foster families as soon as they are done with training,” Kulin says.

Kulin says the county doesn’t have a target denial rate.

“We deny those who do not meet our standards,” Kulin said. “There are also a number of applicants who withdraw from the process for various reasons, including to avoid being denied a license.”

By contrast, Washoe County approved between 60 and 78 percent of its applicants in the last three years – 156 of 199 in 2016; 135 of 191 in 2017; and 57 of 96 to date in 2018.

The State of Nevada, which administers child welfare programs in all counties with the exception of Clark and Washoe, did not provide foster care approval figures to the Current.

Other states approve foster care applicants at an even higher rate than Clark County.

Washington state child welfare officials say they received 1,402 foster home applications in 2017 and approved all but 18, a 99 percent approval rate.

“These denials do not include foster homes that withdraw from the process by their choice, through mutual agreement, or through a legal settlement,” says Debra Johnson, a media relations official for the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families.

Washington’s statistics do not include applications processed by private companies.  Nevada does not allow private companies to license foster care applicants.

Arizona has a similarly high approval rate. In 2016, Arizona approved all but four of 1,797 applications. The state approved all but two of 1,779 applications in 2017 and has denied no applications from 682 applicants so far this year, according to a spokesman.

Supply and demand

Reports of child abuse, neglect or endangerment grew by 10.6 percent in Clark County in 2015, by 8.6 percent in 2016, by 9.4 percent in 2017 and by 12.6 percent in the fiscal year ending in June of 2018.

Kulin says Clark County’s DFS does not believe the opioid crisis, which has ravaged child welfare resources in other states, is responsible for the increase in reports of child abuse here.

“Not at this time, although drug use is certainly a factor in some cases. The increase could also be affected by the continued increase in our population here,” says Kulin. However, population growth in Clark County hovered around two percent in recent years, well below the increase in reports of abuse and neglect.

The Centers for Disease Control reported last week that the number of pregnant women addicted to opiates has quadrupled in the last fifteen years.  In 2016, the number of new foster children whose parents used drugs hit 92,000 — the highest in the 30 years the statistic has been kept, says the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That’s one in three of the 274,000 children who entered foster care that year. Drug-related foster care cases skyrocketed by 32 percent from 2012 to 2016.

Kulin says DFS has no information on the incidence of babies born to drug-addicted mothers.

In 2015, the Clark County Department of Family Services (DFS) received 21,068 referrals or reports and referred 54 percent of the cases to CPS.

By the fiscal year ending in June 2018, the number of referrals received by DFS increased to 28,185, with 45 percent of those forwarded to CPS for investigation — a lower percentage of cases forwarded than in 2015, but roughly 1,300 more referrals.

CPS removed 2,474 children from their homes in fiscal 2018, an 11 percent drop from the previous year. 

What’s behind the increase in Clark County referrals and why are proportionally fewer cases being investigated?

“In recent years we have put more emphasis on encouraging the public to contact us anytime they suspect abuse or neglect,” says Dan Kulin, a spokesman for Clark County  “We believe this has led some people to contact us when they encounter situations that they may have not reported in the past, which has likely increased the number of reports to us.”

“Also, within the last three years we have put even more focus on finding ways to help families stay together. To accomplish this, we work to identify the needs of a family and provide them with services to address those needs while keeping the family together whenever possible.”

“At this point, things can’t get any worse in Las Vegas.”

The county’s intensified efforts are possible because of a Title IV-E Federal Waiver, that “has allowed us to provide our DFS families with services that were not previously available to them,” according to a county website.  

The in-home “safety services” enable families “to keep their children safely at home while they work on increasing their parental protective capacities enough to mitigate circumstances that would cause their children to be deemed unsafe,” says the county website. 

As a result of the waiver, the county website says CPS has been able to keep more than 1,700 children “safely at home in our first three years. Our goal is to avoid the trauma of removal from the family by serving more children and families at home and reduce the number of children in foster care.”

“At this point, things can’t get any worse in Las Vegas,” says Shauffer of the Youth Law Center. “We’re still interested in taking on an advocacy role.  We are looking to find how we can ensure improvement because it’s languishing.”

Unlike Clark County, Washoe County’s referrals for possible abuse, neglect or endangerment have dropped during the last four years from 5,680 to 5,621.  In Washoe, the percentage of cases investigated has remained static, between 34 and 36 percent in that time period.

In rural Nevada, referrals to the State of Nevada Department of Child and Family Services increased from 3,803 to 4,144; however, investigators pursued fewer cases, down from 28 percent four years ago to 21 percent in 2018.

‘Critical to get it right the first time’

For child welfare officials, the task of attracting new foster parents while weeding out those who are not qualified amounts to a balancing act.  But Janice Wolf of CAP says Clark County is failing miserably on a variety of counts, including recruiting homes close to where children are removed to allow for family visitation and prevent the child from having to change schools.

Wolf says the county fails to recruit quality homes where siblings don’t have to be split up.  “Being separated from siblings is as traumatic, if not more traumatic than being removed in the first place,” she says.    

Wolf alleges that child welfare officials alienate potential quality foster parents through policies and attitudes and she says the county makes insufficient efforts to work with relatives so that children can be placed with family instead of strangers.

The county also fails to match children with families with similar interests, says Wolf, who accuses the county of “placing kids wherever there is an open bed, regardless of whether it’s a good fit, then blaming the child when the placement disrupts.”

On average, foster children in Clark County remain in the system for two years, and each of those children will be placed in three different homes during their stay, according to Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), an organization of volunteers who work to represent the desires of the child in court proceedings and other forums.   

Clark County DFS says for every 1,000 days in the system, a child will be placed in 4.7 foster homes, on average.  

Nevada is not alone.  A recent study from the non-profit Children’s Rights says 34 percent of the children in foster care in Oklahoma have been moved four or more times, with 17 percent subjected to six or more placements.  

Child psychologists say children who endure multiple placements are more likely to suffer mental health problems and generate greater mental health costs than children who are in stable placements.

“That’s why it’s critical to get it right the first time,” said one CASA volunteer who did not want to be identified.  

Nevada law prohibits a foster care license being issued to anyone who has a felony conviction for:

  • Child abuse or neglect
  • Spousal abuse
  • Any crime against children, including child pornography
  • Any crime involving violence, including rape, sexual assault, or homicide, but not including any other physical assault or battery
  • Physical assault, battery, or a drug-related offense, if the offense was committed within the last 5 years

Clark County has an annual average of about 1,433 licensed family foster homes and ten group homes (each licensed for seven to 15 children)  to care for more than 3,300 foster children.

Washoe County has about 410 foster homes and 18 group homes for more than 900 children in their care.  The state is charged with coordinating care in 223 foster homes and 11 group homes for some 400 children in rural Nevada.  

The federal government’s lack of regulation of foster care and adoption means there are no nationally uniform standards for applicants or home studies.  Agencies within the same state often have vastly different criteria.

Some states, such as California, have raised their standards for prospective foster parents, but not without disruption to the system.  New foster parents and relatives must navigate the state’s resource family approval (RFA) process, the result of more stringent standards for relatives seeking to provide care. 

California now prohibits relatives from being reimbursed for children in their care until they’ve completed the RFA process, leaving thousands of families caring for children with funding, according to news reports.

Raising standards, experts say, can result in a temporary disruption of the system but may result in stronger and longer placements.  

Additionally, applicants for foster care and adoption navigate the same licensing procedures, which is already the case in Clark County.
“It’s slowing up the process (in California) but you get a better result in the end.  You don’t get to the end of foster care and say ‘this person can’t adopt because they don’t meet the criteria,'” says Shauffer.

State Senator Patricia Farley, a foster parent, told the Current the child welfare system is plagued by inefficient policies and misplaced priorities.

“We don’t take the time and effort to screen out bad people,” says Farley.

“The system is so bad they can’t get good families and they’re not attracting a ton of good families because the process is ridiculous,” Farley laments. “They (DFS) spend time worrying about trash can lids in the kitchen but not training parents and providing treatment for the issues the kids may have or the turmoil the house may be in.”

Clark Count applicants must be residents of the county and be at least 21 years of age. Non-married couples can apply, though only one parent may adopt a child. Single people can apply, as can gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals and couples.  People with disabilities can also apply to foster or adopt.

The process includes a background check, fingerprinting, 30 hours of training and a financial check to ensure the family will not be reliant on foster payments it receives from the state. Pay stubs are checked to verify income.    

Applicants must have a “lifestyle free from drug/alcohol or law enforcement difficulties”  and submit to a home inspection.

They must be tested for TB and trained to perform first aid, as well as CPR, if the home has a pool.  

Applicants are asked to provide personal references, who complete a questionnaire and agree to be interviewed.  

Home checks determine whether the dwelling has adequate fire prevention measures and other requirements that some applicants consider to be nitpicking.

“Smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, all of which are good, but all of which we probably don’t have in our own homes,” says Shauffer of the Youth Law Center.  “If it were my child I’d be more concerned whether they were in a loving, caring environment.”

“We should know that every child in out-of-home care, regardless of how long, is getting excellent care.”

Dana Gentry
Reporter | Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Gentry began her career in broadcasting as an intern at Channel 8, KLAS-TV. She later became a reporter at Channel 8, working with Las Vegas TV news legends Bob Stoldal and the late Ned Day. Gentry left her reporting job in 1985 to focus on motherhood. She returned to TV news in 2001 to launch "Face to Face with Jon Ralston" and the weekly business programs In Business Las Vegas and Vegas Inc, which she co-anchored with Jeff Gillan. Dana is the mother of four adult children, three cats, three dogs and a cockatoo.

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