Nevada Lawmakers Call for Audit of ‘Broken’ Juvenile Justice and Child Welfare Systems

Exterior view of the Summit View Youth Correctional Center in Las Vegas. Photo: Chase Stevens

A new bill in Nevada seeks to audit every program in the state’s juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

Assembly Bill 111 would require the legislature to hire an independent consultant to conduct a study “concerning the funding of child welfare” in the state, allocating $250,000 to fund the review.

The bill, sponsored by Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno (D), indicates that the audit must include a review of the block grant federal funding model used in Clark County via a Title IV-E waiver, and any potentially more appropriate funding mechanisms; a breakdown of current and potential funding streams; and a cost-benefit analysis of switching to a new child welfare and juvenile justice case management system.

Children’s Advocacy Alliance (CAA), a statewide group focused on child welfare among other kids’ issues, proposed the legislation to the Assembly’s Committee on Legal Operations and Elections, of which Monroe-Moreno is a member, last summer.

“We know that Nevada as a state isn’t investing in everything that they need to, not only in our child welfare system, but in the systems that our child welfare agencies rely on to provide services and support,” said Denise Tanta, CAA’s executive director. “It’s really hard for us to advocate for more funding when we don’t have those clear numbers.”

The state currently audits programs individually, but doesn’t track basic metrics of success like recidivism rates, according to 3 News Las Vegas.

“From my office, from the public defender, the department of corrections, we all know it’s needed because we don’t know whether we’re improving the lives of children. It’s all just speculation,” Deputy District Attorney Brigid Duffy told 3 News.

Nevada’s Division of Child and Family Services oversaw 4,712 youth in care in 2018 with a child welfare budget of $239 million. Tanata said some of the problems that triggered the call for an audit of spending was consistently high caseloads for social workers, disparities in funding levels among jurisdictions and an “overall lack of programs and services” available via child welfare and other social programs. She said policymakers need to understand the collateral damage to the child welfare system caused by state cuts to other public services like Medicaid and substance abuse treatment.

She also wants to make sure the state is maximizing the federal funds they can draw on to support these systems.

“The other piece is with the Family First Act coming down and changing the system of child welfare and where some of the emphasis is as far as where some of the funds can be utilized, I think its important to take a look at this from that perspective,” Tanata said.

She said she’s heard anecdotally that other states are more creative in finding new sources of federal funding and ways to use existing revenue streams. Last year, 37 percent of the Nevada’s Division of Child and Family Services came from federal sources, while the national average in recent years has hovered around 45 percent.

In 2017, more than 20,000 youth were referred to the state’s juvenile justice system and 5,378 were detained in county and state facilities. In recent years, the number of youth being sent through diversion programs has decreased, and the number sent to secure detention has steadily risen. The state budgeted nearly $80 million for juvenile justice services for the 2018-19 fiscal year.

The Children’s Advocacy Alliance in Nevada publishes a Children’s Report Card grading the state’s care of its children based on where it ranks against other states. Currently, the grade for child safety is a C-. That grade encompasses subcategories with even poorer results: The state earned a D for youth homelessness and a D+ for juvenile violence.

For economic well-being, a significant risk factor for involvement in both child welfare and juvenile justice, Nevada earned a D.

AB 111 has yet to be introduced; the backers are aiming for the week of March 11 to coincide with a Children’s Week event happening at the legislature.

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Legislative leaders in California have produced an initial plan to achieve Gov. Gavin Newsom's call for the closure of the state's Department of #JuvenileJustice, which once housed more than 10,000 youth and young adults and now holds fewer than 1,000.