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NCYL Seeks Relief for Children in Las Vegas Child Welfare System; Sues for Damages and Reform

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Tracy Schroth, 510-835-8098 x3013
Bill Grimm, 510-835-8098 x3016
Bryn Martyna, 510-835-8098 x3036

For a copy of the Complaint, click here.

April 14, 2010
-- The National Center for Youth Law (NCYL) filed a lawsuit against state and county child welfare officials yesterday, charging them with violating state and federal law and showing "deliberate indifference to the health and safety of the children [they are] obligated to protect." The suit seeks unspecified damages for 13 children named in the lawsuit, as well as system improvements for several classes of children that comprise more than half of the 3,600 children in foster care.

The lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Las Vegas, cites 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. In many cases, as described in the lawsuit, their conduct has served to perpetuate 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 suit says.

For example, defendants 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, since she was just 1, and has been shuttled through 40 placements.  

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. Defendants themselves commissioned many of these reports.

Nevada Department of Health and Human Services Director Michael Willden, Clark County (Las Vegas) Department of Family Services Director Tom Morton, and several other county and state officials are named in the suit.

NCYL filed suit together with 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. 
NCYL 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 District 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 will continue to suffer until state and county child welfare officials stop resisting reform and instead comply with the law by making essential 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 NCYL attorney Bryn Martyna.

NCYL 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 US 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. 

Even more disturbing is the discovery of other abuses, including the administering of multiple psychotropic drugs to foster children.  Among the allegations in the lawsuit, for which NCYL is seeking damages for 13 plaintiff children:

  • 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 seeking relief on behalf of three classes of children for whom defendants have failed to fulfill their legal obligations to:

  1. Develop case plans that contain the information foster parents need to properly care for the children in their care
  2. Provide guardians ad litem (representatives for children in court) as required under both Nevada and federal law
  3. Provide early intervention services for foster children, denying them that care and support at a crucial point in their development

"If Defendants' unconstitutional and unlawful actions and omissions are not halted, many more children will be harmed," said NCYL Senior 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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