March 22, 2015
By Yesenia Amaro
Las Vegas Review Journal

Nevada and Clark County are clashing over what state and federal laws actually require when it comes to reporting child fatalities and near fatalities to the public.

Those who have been involved with the issue say there’s been an ongoing “dispute” about that for years. The fact that both entities haven’t resolved the conflict is unacceptable, said former Nevada lawmaker Barbara Buckley, who is executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.

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Nevada and Clark County are clashing over what state and federal laws actually require when it comes to reporting child fatalities and near fatalities to the public.

Those who have been involved with the issue say there’s been an ongoing “dispute” about that for years. The fact that both entities haven’t resolved the conflict is unacceptable, said former Nevada lawmaker Barbara Buckley, who is executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.

A case in point: 3-month-old Donald Hemmings III. The baby died in January, about a month after North Las Vegas officers serving a search warrant in a robbery case found him covered in vomit and living in conditions deemed an “extreme environmental hazard,” according to a police report.

The state believed a fatality disclosure — required in cases involving abuse or neglect — was needed in the case. Officials based their position on advice from the Nevada attorney general’s office.

Clark County officials, following advice from the district attorney’s office, disagreed. They did not believe the death was directly related to abuse or neglect.

So when the county didn’t file a disclosure on the North Las Vegas infant death with the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services, state officials did so on the county’s behalf.

“The state of Nevada is more transparent and more willing to publish the details when there’s been a fatality than Clark County,” Buckley said last week. “I’ve encouraged Clark County to revisit their policies because I think (that) if they don’t release information then it looks suspicious.”

Underreporting child deaths has been a problem for Clark County in the past. In 2005, the county was warned by the California-based National Center for Youth Law and the Las Vegas-based Children’s Advocacy Alliance that it was in violation of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act. The violation was tied to the county’s failure to disclose information about child deaths resulting from abuse or neglect, including information about Child Protective Services’ involvement with families prior to the deaths.

Under Nevada law, “data or information regarding the fatality or near fatality of a child who is the subject of a report of abuse or neglect, must be made available to any member of the general public upon request.”

The state’s disclosure on the county’s behalf in Donald’s death showed the baby’s family had a long history with the Clark County Department of Family Services.

DISCLOSURE CONFLICT

This year so far, the state Division of Child and Family Services took it upon itself to disclose six child fatalities or near fatalities that Clark County thought did not meet the criteria for public disclosure. That includes Donald’s death.

In 2014, the state reported to the public five of 35 child fatalities or near fatalities in Clark County. The disclosures are posted on a state website. The remaining 30 deaths were disclosed by the county, according to records.

In 2013, the state disclosed four out of 27 cases on behalf of Clark County, according to records.

In contrast, records show that Washoe County, the state’s second-largest county, regularly posts its own child fatality disclosures — the state hasn’t had to file a report on Washoe’s behalf as it has for Clark.

“To me, the (statewide child fatality) policy is pretty explicit,” said Jeanne Marsh, director of the Washoe County Children’s Services Division.

Clark County Assistant Manager Jeff Wells said county officials in disclosure decisions “base it first on the facts of the case.” Child Protective Services and law enforcement investigate all allegations of abuse and neglect ending in fatalities.

“We have to look at each case individually,” he said last week. “Once we have analyzed the case and make a determination on whether or not the fatality or near fatality is related to an allegation of child abuse, we then follow the district attorney’s advice.”

For example, a child in foster care is adopted as an infant and at age 16 dies of cancer in a hospital. The district attorney’s interpretation of that case is that because no abuse or neglect led to the death, the county is not required to file a fatality report, Wells explained.

In certain cases when the Clark County coroner’s office may not have released a cause of death, the county’s investigation may have already concluded that there was no suspicion of abuse or neglect, he said.

LEGAL OPINIONS

The district attorney’s office provides legal advice to the Department of Family Services on the disclosures based on its interpretation of state and federal laws and federal regulations, said Catherine Jorgenson, deputy district attorney in the office’s civil division.

“In my legal opinion, NRS 432B.175 (the child fatality or near fatality public disclosure statute) would not apply if a child’s fatality or near fatality were not related to abuse or neglect,” she said.

Wells said it’s his understanding that the state attorney general’s office takes the position that simply because a child was involved in a past abuse or neglect case, a report is needed.

“Our DAs do not read the statute that way,” Wells said.

Patty Cafferata, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, was unable to comment on the issue Friday.

The state’s Division of Child and Family Services’ decision to release a fatality or near fatality report is based on guidance from the attorney general’s office, which complies with the federal requirement in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, according to division spokeswoman Chrystal Main.

But the conflicting opinions in certain fatality cases create uncertainty, Buckley said.

“People don’t know if the information they are getting is accurate, and again, I think we are all working hard to make improvements and promote more trust in the system,” she said. “They are hurting the cause of child welfare. The public needs to have a sense of trust in the agency, and if the agency is withholding details, it does not lead to a sense of trust.”

Buckley said perhaps a change to the statute is needed. Or the county and state could adopt a measure together because, after all, both entities are interpreting the same law.

Denise Tanata Ashby, executive director for the Children’s Advocacy Alliance in Las Vegas, echoed the same sentiment.

“If the attorney general’s office and the district attorney’s office are still coming back with a different opinion of the law, it seems to me that the law needs to be clear on what cases need to or need not to be reported.”

Contact Yesenia Amaro at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 702-383-0440. Find her on Twitter: @YeseniaAmaro.