Children in crisis: Nevada below national standard for monitoring child abuse cases
Reporter's note: One year ago from yesterday, 11-year-old Chandler Nash Elliott hung himself while his father was at work. We received a press release about the suicide over the fax. Like most news agencies, we do not report on suicides unless they are in a public place or the deceased is a public figure.
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — By the time 11-year-old Chandler Nash Elliott hung himself in his father's home, the state of Nevada had a nearly two-inch-thick case file full of abuse and neglect allegations that almost spanned the boy's lifetime.
About a month before his death, Chandler told a social worker he was afraid of his father, according to files reviewed by the Tribune.
The social worker told a supervisor the fifth-grader should be removed from his father's Kingsbury Grade home and placed in foster care or an emergency shelter.
Despite the recommendation to remove Chandler from the home, he stayed.
On Dec. 14, 2009, Chandler took the bus home from Zephyr Cove Elementary School — and then he took his own life.
When Chandler died, his child welfare case was still open, with allegations against both parents and a caregiver dating back to when the boy was 3 years old. All claims were unsubstantiated except for one, when his mother, Mini Barstow, was convicted for drunken driving with then-3-year-old Chandler in the car, unrestrained.
The Douglas County Sheriff's Office ruled Chandler's death a suicide and closed the case.
No charges were filed against Chandler's father, David Elliott, who had primary custody of the boy.
The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services looked into whether the neglect played a role in Chandler's death, but a spokesman said the case has been closed and the results are confidential.
Unsafe at home
Chandler's case was overseen by the Carson City division of the Nevada Department of Child and Family Services, which was recently found to be out of compliance with federal standards for keeping children in the child welfare system safe at home.
From April 1, 2008, through Sept. 4, 2009, 39 percent of cases in Carson City and outlying rural areas, including Douglas County, were compliant with federal standards for providing consistent checks ups, assessments and services for abused and/or neglected children who remain in their family home, according to the 2010 Child and Family Services Review for the state of Nevada.
The federal standard is 95 percent.
In Clark County, 49 percent of cases are compliant. In Washoe County, the rate rises to 78 percent.
Children remaining in their homes continued to be at risk because the agency did not provide services or provided services that did not target key welfare concerns, the report states. The agency also lacked initial and ongoing safety and risk assessments, and did not address or monitor continued risk concerns in homes.
The same concerns were cited during the 2004 state review, compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Some of the low scores were due to high caseworker case loads, the shortage of services to meet the needs of families and children throughout the state, particularly in rural areas, and that the state does not “make concerted efforts to involve fathers in case planning, visitation or permanency planning,” the report states.
While acknowledging the low marks, state welfare officials said the study's sample size was unfair.
Fixing the system
There are roughly 7,000 children in Nevada with active CPS case files. Of that number, 5,000 are in foster care, while about 2,000 remain in their homes.
The federal Administration for Children and Families sampled 62 cases statewide — 40 cases of children who had been removed from their homes, and 22 cases of families that remained intact.
Of that number, 18 cases were from the Carson City office, which manages the caseloads for 15 rural Nevada counties.
“You would have to have 100 percent on every single item on every single case,” said Amber Howell, deputy administrator for child welfare for the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services. “I don't know what kind of field would have 100 percent on every single case. The goal would be hard to obtain.”
No state has ever completely passed the assessment, Howell said.
“This is indicative of what is going on across the country,” said Chrystal Main, social services chief for the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services. “We are working from a baseline to improve child welfare outcomes, but across the nation, we have our work to do.”
The state was charged with devising a formal improvement plan to address the shortfalls. Over the next two years, the division will implement a protocol for following a family through the lifetime of its case.
With the help of a Clark County model, caseworkers will have a formal outline for assessing families past their initial assessment to assure a child is safe and cared for, including visiting the family in regular intervals.
Caseworkers are already checking in on families, but the new program will formalize the process, Howell said.
“I think the more formal we can get in driving case managers in making decisions, and having cases reviewed and assessed, the better,” Howell said
A history of abuse
Every year, 13 percent of children who die in the U.S. are from families with current or prior reports of abuse and neglect, even if the death was not related to parental harm. In about two percent of those cases, the children were placed in foster care but were reunited with their families in the past five years.
In Nevada, where Chandler died, child fatalities with CPS case files are in line with the national average.
All child deaths involving suspicion of abuse or neglect are tracked by Nevada, regardless of prior history.
The causes range from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, to accidents. Some deaths are by suicide, as in Chandler's case.
Several recent deaths show a long history of prior allegations, some substantiated, some not. The documents are public and part of the state's mandatory child death disclosures.
In January 2009, A Reno 4-year-old died from a possible overdose of methadone, a medication used to ease withdrawal symptoms from methamphetamine and other opiates.
The family had a case history of substantiated sexual abuse, allegations of physical abuse and three-year history of maternal drug abuse.
In April of 2010, a 2-month-old baby from Reno was found unresponsive and face-down on the couch by her 10-year-old brother. According to the division's child death disclosure, the mother had fallen asleep with the baby while breast-feeding. The Washoe County Department of Social Services had an “extensive” history with the family. Safety concerns focused on domestic violence, the mother's mental health, as well as housing stability and cleanliness.
The case was closed the day before the baby died.
An open case
Chandler Nash Elliott was born May 8, 1998, to Marie Nash and Dave Elliott. The couple separated before Chandler was born.
Nash was later married and divorced. A few years ago, she married Gary Barstow, a disabled veteran from Virginia City. She is known locally as “Mini” Barstow.
According to child welfare files and school records, Chandler spent most of his young life moving between the two homes, in the middle of a contentious custody battle. The last time he lived with his mother was in 2007.
When Chandler was 3 and his mother was arrested for drunken driving, Barstow lost custody. Chandler's case with Nevada CPS was opened for the first time.
Claims against the father came next, including physical abuse, lack of supervision, neglect, parental drug use and an accusation of sexual abuse against a male babysitter when Chandler was 4 years old. All of those claims, dating from 2001 to 2009, are listed as unsubstantiated.
Elliott has a history of methamphetamine use and court-ordered rehabilitation and parenting classes, according to court records and Chandler's file.
Numerous times the parents were court-ordered to attend co-parenting classes but appear to have never enrolled.
Elliott said all of the claims are untrue, and that Barstow lied often to regain custody of Chandler.
Barstow denies those claims.
The most recent accusation came on Nov. 2, 2009 when child welfare workers responded to a report that Elliott bit his son.
The worker first met with Chandler at school. The boy claimed he and his father had a fight after his father accused him of hiding a cell phone. Chandler said his father bit him and knocked him to the ground. Chandler said he did not want to live with his father any longer.
Elliott said his son was lying.
“He wanted to live with his mom, and his mom would manipulate him with it,” Elliott said in August. “He always thought the grass was greener on the other side.”
Chandler's mother was en route to Arizona to look at property with her husband. Barstow planned to return to South Lake Tahoe to spend Christmas with her son, she said.
When the social worker met with Elliott to discuss his son's accusations, Elliott told the worker that his son bit him first, and he “bit him back so he knows how it feels,” according to the report.
Elliott told the Tribune that biting his son “was wrong.”
The social worker completed a risk assessment of the home — a checklist that accounts for prior history, substance abuse, caretaker mental health and whether a child's emotional and physical needs are met.
The worker put Chandler's risk level for both abuse and neglect at “high.”
The day of the assessment, Nov. 19, 2009, the social worker told a supervisor that Chandler should be put in foster care or at Austin's House, a shelter in Douglas County for children removed from their homes by the state.
The social worker asked Elliott if his son could stay with any relatives in the area until “things calm down between them.” Elliott turned down the request and told the worker he understood that his son was upset because his mother was moving away.
Elliott said he “vaguely” remembers that conversation and that he can't remember whether it was with a CPS worker.
The social worker met with Chandler again on Nov. 24. Chandler said he was looking forward to Christmas with his mother, and was meeting with the school counselor weekly and enjoyed his lunches with her.
During the first week of December, Chandler's mother called the social worker and requested custody of Chandler. The worker told Barstow that the department could not overrule court-ordered custody, “other than when a child is in immediate danger and the state takes custody,” according to the file.
On Dec. 14, the boy was found hanging in his father's home.
In May, Chandler's mother returned to California on her son's birthday and held a small ceremony in his honor, planting a small tree and placing a memorial plaque near her daughter's home.
Barstow hopes that someday there will be a grievance board for CPS complaints, where she could have appealed the court's decision to leave Chandler in his father's care.
“They were leaving my son in harm's way,” she said.
Resources for those in crisis
According to local mental health experts, if you or someone you know are thinking of committing suicide or hurting someone, please take the following steps:
• First, make sure the person knows they can reach out and talk about their problems with someone they trust. As you do so, try to find out the level of intention from the person. When people experience these types of thoughts, they can often feel helpless and need empathy, support or just help to connect them with someone they can trust.
• If you think the person might be very serious, it is better to be safe than sorry. If you're a family member or worried about a family friend, it is OK to call 911 or the authorities.
• If you want to keep the matter private, here are two hotlines:
• Mental Health crisis line is 530-573-3251.
• The South Lake Tahoe Women's Center crisis hotline at 530-544-4444 or 800-750-6444.