I-Team: Clark County Underreporting Child Deaths - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Clark County Underreporting Child Deaths

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Roderick "RJ" Arrington Jr. Roderick "RJ" Arrington Jr.

LAS VEGAS -- Nevada children are more likely to die at the hands of their caregivers than children in most other states, according to a recent national report on child maltreatment.

However, a law designed to shed light on those deaths has the state and Clark County at odds over underreporting.

In 2007, lawmakers lifted the veil of secrecy on child deaths, requiring child welfare agencies to disclose basic information, in part to determine whether the county's child protective services were living up to their mission.

But a string of high-profile child deaths has revealed Clark County is underreporting when compared to the rest of the state, meaning almost nothing is known about what happened to those children who died.

Watching Roderick "RJ" Arrington Jr. sing "This Little Light of Mine" somehow makes his death at 7 years old seem that much darker.

According to police, RJ's stepfather beat and shook him into a coma as punishment for falling asleep before finishing his homework.

"I can't bring him back," said Latanza Harris, RJ's grandmother. "I want to bring him back."

In the days after RJ's death, his grandparents questioned whether more could have been done to protect him after a child fatality disclosure -- required by law -- revealed someone reported RJ's alleged abuse the day before he died.

Child welfare officials didn't respond in time.

"That is a clear example of why the law was enacted," former state Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley said.

Buckley helped to craft the law that requires child welfare agencies to disclose information about child deaths and near fatalities, including what, if any, history the agency has with the child or his family.

"The more you know, the more you can look at ways to potentially prevent near fatalities or deaths," Buckley said. "Could, for example, someone have done something differently? Not a blame game, but if we can learn from bad things that happen and prevent them from happening in the future, everyone benefits."

The county's most recent omission was the stabbing death of 10-year-old Jade Morris.

Clark County insists her death was not the result of abuse or neglect, so disclosure isn't required.

"I don't see any reason why that wouldn't be disclosed," said Ed Cotton, former director of the state's Division of Child and Family Services.

At the I-Team's request, Cotton reviewed available information on the more than 300 child deaths in Clark County last year.

His conclusion, the county failed to report at least 19 deaths -- and as many as 34.

At the time of Cotton's review, Clark County had disclosed a total of 15 deaths.

"If you just look at the seven drownings and the eight co-sleepings, that's 15 right there," he said. "And you still have 11 babies that died due to maternal use of meth. You have a baby that died from a plastic bag in her mouth. To me, you're already way beyond the 15."

The Clark County Department of Family Services declined the I-Team's request for an interview.

Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak said the county is simply following the district attorney's legal advice as to what it can and should reveal.

"It's not a matter that we want to hide anything," Sisolak said. "That's simply not the case. It's that we want to protect the children and at the same time give the public as much information as we feel is comfortable and fair."

In the absence of agreement, the state has begun disclosing those deaths and near fatalities it believes the county should report, but won't.

Jade Morris was the first.

RJ's death prompted an internal review, but the results of that won't be released, according to the county.

"You can't even imagine how tough this is," said Harris, RJ's grandmother. "This is a nightmare right now."

Washoe County, the rural counties and the state are all reporting in the same manner as each other.

Only Clark County has a different approach. According to the state, it's working with county attorneys to reach a resolution.

Late Thursday the county unexpectedly released the findings of its internal review into RJ's death. The county determined that those who might have saved him didn't do their jobs.

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