Five years after a federal official referred to Clark County as one of the worst child welfare systems in the country, the state's largest county said Friday that proposed budget cuts threaten its improvements and could put it back at square one.
Between 2006 and 2010, the county reduced the total number of days children spend in foster care by 41 percent, and finalized a record 442 adoptions in 2010. Since October 2007, no child has died from abuse or neglect in an open case, while nine children died in such situations in the first part of 2007.
"To return to 2005 and 2006 would be a tragedy for the children of Clark County," Thomas Morton, director of Clark County Family Services, told the Assembly Ways and Means and Senate Finance subcommittee. "Their very lives depend on the actions taken at this time."
Nevada's Division of Child and Family Services, with its $433 million proposed budget for the upcoming biennium, funds services such as foster family care, adoption and group homes. It faces a 10 percent budget cut along with most other state
Rural counties will now be required to pay assessments to cover the cost of some services, under Gov. Brian's Sandoval's budget proposal.
The state currently provides funding to Clark and Washoe counties to administer their own family services programs. Sandoval's budget would convert the funding to a block grant that includes incentive funding if programs demonstrate improvement.
The administration, in budget documents, said the block grant "will provide greater flexibility to meet child welfare needs and provides performance goals and expectations."
But Morton scrutinized the plan, saying that when combined with cuts in federal matching funds, it drops Clark County's Family Services budget from $44 million to $33 million. Those funds are divided between personnel costs, payments to foster families, and subsidies to cover the cost of adoptions.
He said lowering foster family payments would make it harder to find homes for children.
"I've lost $11 million and have to improve my program to win it back," Morton said. "At the same time, the environment is becoming more difficult to meet our goals."
One potential consequence is less space in group homes and treatment centers for children with severe mental illness. Faced with the option of paying for the psychiatric treatment themselves, Morton said, parents would be even more likely to relinquish custody of their children to access services.
"What has become of us as a civilization and as a community and as a state?" said Washoe County Family Court Judge Frances Doherty about that scenario. "We're going to go back generations."
But the flexibility of the block grant may be a good thing, according to Washoe County Social Services Director Kevin Schiller, because it allows officials to focus more on programs that help intervene in families in crisis before they have to give up their children.
One successful program in Washoe County is called a Family Solutions Team, in which a social worker brings family members together with friends or neighbors for a discussion about how to best care for a child.
"We're moving from a back-end focused system of foster care, to a front-end diversion effort," Schiller said.
The strategy has reduced the department's workload by 10 percent to 12 percent, allowing Washoe County to return $900,000 last fiscal year to Nevada's general fund.
Legislators at Friday's hearing also heard about other painful possible reductions in the division, including a plan to close camps for troubled teens, a measure that juvenile-justice officials are trying to avoid by reducing capacity at juvenile halls instead.
"I don't envy the jobs you have," Assemblywoman April Mastroluca, D-Henderson, told family services administrators. "The damage that's being done is going to be irreversible at some point."