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I-Team: DFS Expected to do Poorly in Survey

A federal review of the Clark County Department of Family Services is expected to show the child welfare system is failing our kids. The survey, the first of its kind in five years, may put the county back in the hot seat with federal regulators.

In 2004, the last time the federal government surveyed the Clark County DFS, the agency failed to meet the standard in nearly every category — things like the risk of harm to children, the rate of re-abuse, and the stability of foster care placements.

Fast-forward five years and again the agency expects to fall short in nearly every category despite its on-going efforts at reform.

Hired as an instrument of change, DFS Director Tom Morton arrived following a string of high profile child deaths and a series of critical reviews of the agency. Morton acknowledged the challenge before him and labeled his action plan — safe futures.

“It’s up to me to provide vision and leadership and a management plan for improving things. It’s up to all 500 of us to get the work done,” he said Morton in his first interview with the I-Team a month before officially assuming his post in June of 2006.

A federal survey of the agency, known as the Child and Family Services Review, is expected to find DFS out of compliance in five out of six statewide indicators, including several that relate to the safety of children.

“The chance for something to go wrong still exists. It’s kind of like sitting on top of a claymore mine with trip wires all around you. You live with that fear that one of them is going to trip something. But overall, I believe that this is a safer system than it was three years ago,” said Morton.

Morton points to significant improvement according to his estimates in the rate of the recurrence of abuse and the abuse of children in foster care. He credits the community’s investment in child protective services for the progress. “Our timeliness of response has increased. Our performance around timeliness of safety assessments has increased. Our substantiation rate has almost doubled since I got here, so there are strong indicators that the investment has paid off,” he said.

Morton believes DFS exceeds the standard for the timeliness and permanency with which it reunites children with their families. Yet he suspects it will fail significantly with respect to the number of placements children experience in foster care and the time it takes for kids to become eligible for adoption.

Morton points to high caseloads among his caseworkers and at the family court as on-going contributors to both challenges. He says simply the entire system needs more resources.

“I think there are improvements we ought to celebrate. I think we also ought to accept the realism that the comparative investment in child welfare in Nevada in relationship to other urban systems is still very low,” he said.

Most of the data being reviewed by the feds spans from March of 2007 to March of 2008, some nine months after Morton arrived. He hopes that a separate case review of more recent files to be included in the survey will show additional improvement.

The Administration of Children and Families is expected to announce its preliminary findings Friday.


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