Termination of parental rights hearing at Family Court.
Judge Frank Sullivan
Judge Steven Jones
LAS VEGAS -- Sweeping changes are underway at the Clark County Family Court. It's a move that follows an I-Team investigation into adoption delays at the court.
The court system conducted a review after the I-Team's looked into a back-log of adoptions. The result is reform that has the potential to improve the lives of children.
On this particular day, two parents are at the defense table facing the termination of their parental rights. Prosecutors accuse mom of forcing their youngest to eat foreign objects which permanently injured him. The father is accused of failing to protect the 4-year-old.
Both parents deny the claims and are fighting to bring their children home after nearly a year-and-a-half in foster care.
"These are intense cases," said Judge Frank Sullivan, Clark County Family Court.
He granted the I-Team rare access to the proceedings which are usually closed to the public.
Last year, an I-Team investigation of the family court exposed a back-log of TPR (termination of parental rights) trials resulting in delayed adoptions.
"We're really hoping to get these cases moving much quicker. Our goal is to hit all the federal and state timelines without exception," Sullivan said.
To achieve that goal, the district court formed a committee to examine the dependency court where child abuse and neglect matters are heard. Among its early challenges was a case management system so antiquated that the court couldn't readily access even basic information about its cases. For example, knowing how many TPR trials were delayed and how many children were in limbo, as a result.
"The judge's in the review found more problems that astounded them than just the TPR backlog," said Barbara Buckley with Legal Aid Center of southern Nevada. She served on the committee.
"Certainly we had a bottleneck with one of the judges and I think we didn't have enough judges assigned to the cases. We had delays, we had cases bumping back and forth and we didn't have anyone really in charge," Buckley said.
Until recently, the vast majority of TPR trials were assigned to a single judge -- Judge Stephen Jones. He's now under federal indictment accused of using his office to further an investment scheme.
The committee voted to assign Judges Bob Teuton, Cynthia Guilliani and Frank Sullivan to hear the backlogged cases and streamline the entire dependency docket.
Sullivan summed up their jobs, "I see this as a work in progress. We've done new calendars, how those are going to work, I don't know, we'll see. But if they don't work, we're going to scrub them right away; we're not going to wait six months. Tweak it here, tweak it there and then monitor and say are we getting any better or not?"
Additional changes include technological advancements such as more judicial oversight and a shift toward a one judge, one family model. It would help keep cases and children from languishing in the system.
"I'm really hoping we see a reduction in all of the delays and more accountability. Because these kids, they're our charge. They've done nothing wrong other than be a victim," Buckley said.
Part of this process will include an evaluation of judicial resources. Critics of the court say there simply aren't enough judges hearing child welfare cases, even with the addition of another judge.
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