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Chronic absenteeism should be investigated outside child welfare system, lawmakers told

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Chronic absenteeism should be investigated outside child welfare system, lawmakers told

Jun 13, 2024 | 8:00 am ET
By Michael Lyle
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Chronic absenteeism should be investigated outside child welfare system, lawmakers told
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Child welfare agencies told state lawmakers about the challenges they faced providing family support and recruiting foster families.

 Clark County child welfare officials asked state lawmakers to consider removing educational neglect, which includes issues like chronic absenteeism and truancy, from what their office investigates. 

Clark County received roughly 600 educational neglect referrals last year. None resulted in a child being removed from a home, according to Jill Marano, the director of family services at Clark County.

“We believe there are other and more appropriate solutions in addressing chronic absenteeism,” she told the interim Committee on Health and Human Services on Monday.

Other states have been looking at how to address chronic absenteeism outside of the child welfare system, something Marano said Nevada should consider. 

A new approach wouldn’t stop school districts from asking child welfare agencies from investigating neglect and potential abuse, she said. 

With a high volume of cases and limited resources, it would free up caseworkers to investigate other incidents of abuse and neglect. 

“What we’re finding is that in a system that is overtaxed and overburdened where workers are getting sometimes two or three reports a day, getting an educational neglect report is adding to a workload that is really, in our view, taking them away from being able to do the work they need to do,” Marano said. 

Representatives from Clark, Washoe and rural child and family services departments gave state lawmakers an overview of the challenges faced by agencies whether it’s providing families with resources to prevent removal or placing children in foster homes. 

In either instance, there aren’t enough resources. 

Ryan Gustafson, the director of the human services agency in Washoe County, said there has been more efforts in recent years to focus on prevention services to keep children in the home and out of the child welfare system.

Marla McDade Williams, the administrator for the Nevada Division of Child & Family Services, said families at risk of entering the system are often “resource poor” and lack access to affordable housing and child care. 

“If families are struggling economically, it’s going to translate to how they are able to care for their kids,” she said. 

The lack of medical providers in rural counties that take Medicaid can also introduce families to the child welfare system, McDade Williams said.

“I have one case of a family of eight and there is no dental access,” she said. “The school system sees that, they call it neglect but really all they need is an access to a dentist. There is no dentist in that rural area. We are figuring out how to get them access to a dentist so we don’t have to bring them into the system. How do we support these families?”

Some children do need to be removed for their safety and placed in the system. 

All agencies are struggling to find enough families to place children. The first choice for placements, Marano said, is relatives and fictive kin, who are unrelated to the child but have a relationship with the child.

Agencies have been working to increase the number of licensed foster homes when that isn’t available. 

Gustafson said the number of foster homes in Washoe County has declined since the Covid pandemic. There are 57 licensed foster homes that are “on hold” and not taking any children at the moment, he said.  

Some of it has to do with the economic realities in the aftermath of Covid. 

“It’s 2024 now but some folks are sort of catching up on life and just not in the space where they are wanting to take kids,” he said. “We are working on these 57 families to get them to re-engage. They are technically licensed and have gone through that arduous licensing process, but they are sitting in a holding pattern and not wanting to take any new children at this time.”

Agencies are also dealing with logistical challenges, such as inadequate transportation resources.

If a child is removed, Gustafson said the ideal situation is to place them in with a family near their current school. The school, he added, “may be the only normalcy they have, the only constant they have is the school they are going through.” 

However, if the only placement is across town, without resources to assist the foster family it “creates additional burdens getting children to their school and to appointments,” he said.

“When you have a surplus of foster homes you can place children in a home that’s close in proximity to the home that they came from,” he said.

Counties have looked at making the licensing process simpler by reducing the number of classes, increasing how often training can take place, and combining various aspects of training.

Marano said they used to require nine classes and separate training for CPR and car seat safety. The county reduced it to seven, and included the safety instruction within those seven.

Both Washoe and Clark said they attempted to keep online training implemented during the pandemic, but found it led to more challenges, including reduced engagement and disruption of the number of places.  

“One of the things we see that helps with foster parents is when they are connected with other foster parents and have that community support, which they can develop when they are in person in a cohort that is going through training together,”  Marano said. “We didn’t see they were doing that online. That’s why we made the decision to go back to in-person.”