By Darcy Spears
Clark County, NV (KTNV) - Desperate parents. Children with no rights. Ruthless caseworkers, and a corrupt system. That's how Clark County's Department of Family Services has been described by child welfare experts who say our system is broken almost beyond repair.
"We are damaging children so much more within the system..." says Anita Stephens of the Clark County Caregiver Advisory Board.
"I think what you're seeing here is exactly what happens when children do not have a voice," says Janice Wolf of the Children's Attorneys Project.
"I believe if anybody should be charged with child abuse and neglect it should be the Department of Family Services," says Vicki Lambou, a foster mom.
Those concerns are echoed across the valley by judges, attorneys, child advocates and parents who are hoping against hope that change comes to Clark County.
"Nevada is woefully behind," says Wolf. She leads the Children's Attorneys Project through the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. She says they only have the resources to represent half of Nevada's 3200 foster children.
"We're catching up, but in so many states the law requires every child to have an attorney."
Matthew and Brandon did not have an attorney. The two brothers lived with UMC emergency room nurse Vicki Lambou for three years. She was supposed to adopt them and says they all dreamed of being a family.
"I told the children I'm not going anywhere. I'm here. I'm mommy forever. Forever. I had no idea that the DFS was capable of something like this."
Clark County's Department of Family Services took Matthew and Brandon out of Vicki's home based on a substance misuse charge that was later overturned in Family Court for "insufficient credible evidence." Despite that, Vicki never got the boys back.
"They've betrayed me and they've betrayed the children. They've used me. And now I'm being discarded like I'm trash."
Child welfare experts believe this case illustrates what's wrong with Nevada's foster care system, which they say is staffed with inexperienced, overloaded caseworkers who often fail to put children's best interests first.
"They're in a fragile little bubble and the slightest thing can pop that and destroy their world," says Anita Stephens, past president of the Foster Parent Association. She currently sits on the Caregiver Advisory Board made up of foster parents and DFS staff. She's been closely following Vicki's case.
"We have to use a little more compassion in my opinion in really looking at the situation and not just saying I'm the almighty authority."
Over seven and a half years, she and her husband have fostered 43 children, two of whom they've adopted.
"I've worked with DFS enough to know that blanket rigmarole that they put out there of the confidentiality."
She believes DFS often hides behind confidentiality laws in order to protect their decisions. That's exactly what they did when Contact 13 asked about Vicki's case.
"It's the nameless, faceless little people that the bureaucracy of DFS and CPS and the County Commission and all these other people make decisions around," Stephens says.
Vicki went to the County Commission for help, and accountability for DFS.
"And I'm asking for there to be an eye on what happens and who's looking out for the best interests of the children in our community. And why are we taking foster parents that are stepping up to the plate to adopt these children and crucifying them?" Vicki asked Commissioners.
She told then that over a three-month period, DFS filtered the boys through five different foster homes, at times separated from each other.
DFS is now trying to get their biological grandparents to adopt them.
"I know in Vicki's case that's kind of what the premise is--they should be able to be with biological family--but that's where they were removed from. No one's addressing that piece," Stephens says incredulously.
Also, there was no transition for the brothers out of the home where they'd lived for three years. DFS left most of their things behind too.
"I think it's a classic example to look at and say this is what goes horribly wrong within the system and it happens more often than not," Stephens says.
County Commissioners are working to at least get Vicki visitation with the boys.
The National Center for Youth Law in San Francisco is also reviewing the case.
And, just this week, the County Commission approved funding to expand the Children's Attorneys Project.
That means every foster child in the system will have an attorney within the next two years.
Vicki Lambou has started a petition to ask our elected officials for accountability and transparency from DFS.
She's gotten over 200 signatures so far. We've posted a link to that along with this story.
And we'd like to hear your thoughts on this story. Sound off in an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you've got a story about the foster care system, you can send that to us as well.