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The Washoe County Administration Complex on Friday, March 6, 2020 before a press conference with Washoe County officials addressing the county's first presumptive case of COVID-19. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The Human Services Agency of Washoe County has imposed broad restrictions on in-person visitations for children in foster care during the COVID-19 pandemic — a decision that has rankled some attorneys and family members who say it will interrupt efforts to bring families back together.

The policy, announced in emails sent to foster parents, parents’ and children’s attorneys in April, noted that the in-person visitation suspension aligns with Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Stay at Home Order issued on March 31 and will not end until the order is lifted. In lieu of physical contact, the agency added that it is working to facilitate telephone or video calls for separated families.

“We are invested in supporting visits and ways to increase the connection between parents and children. We will not be supporting in-person visits unless there is a critical need,” said an email sent to foster parents on April 7 from Ryan Gustafson and Cara Paoli, directors of the Children’s Services Division.

Roughly 400 children are in foster homes in Washoe County, and many of them still have contact with their parents who have visitation rights. For parents, in-person visits provide a way to maintain a familial bond with their children and demonstrate to officials their readiness to reunite their families.

Children’s and parents’ attorneys criticized the agency’s decision as a “blanket” policy that will have ramifications for family reunification and children’s emotional and mental health and presents a potential violation of the U.S. Constitution’s due process clause.

“You’re supposed to be deciding these on a by-case basis, person-by-person,” said Marc Picker, the head of the alternate public defender’s office in Washoe County, in an interview on Friday. “And that’s been the problem is that even the federal government has said this is not appropriate to have just a blanket order and not give individualized decision making.”

Picker said he reached out to the Human Services Agency after hearing from distraught parents wanting to spend time with their children. He said he wanted to see whether the agency would be open to alternatives to the suspension. 

But after receiving a response that the agency would not reconsider the decision, he said that he took legal action asking the courts to enforce visitation rights. The case is in court now but is confidential because it involves juveniles.

In a follow-up interview Friday afternoon, Gustafson said he had not heard of Picker’s outreach and did not know enough about the court action to provide comment. However, he said that the policy is not a blanket statement and that the agency has a panel to review proposed visitation plans case-by-case and is providing video chat capabilities to individuals who need it.

“It’s clear we need to have some additional conversations to make sure that everybody’s clear and that we have reasonable and doable expectations, but certainly we recognize the value of visitation between kids and their parents,” he said.

Stephanie Cook, the assistant executive director of Washoe Legal Services and the supervising child advocacy attorney, said she understood the need to try to mitigate the effects of the virus. She noted, however, that other court systems in the state are allowing visits on an individual basis and are maintaining health and safety protocols.

“They’re saying that because of the governor’s stay at home order, that in-person visitation between children and their parents is not an essential service, which we disagree with because it is essential to promote reunification, which the agency is supposed to by law do, absent certain aggravating circumstances,” Cook said.

Officials said that Clark County’s Department of Family Services is supporting and encouraging families to use video chat services, but is not prohibiting in-person visits.

Cook added that the directives from the Human Services Agency do not restrict the movement of foster families or stipulate other precautions such as limiting contact with others, wearing masks in public or enforcing quarantine procedures.

Picker and Cook also noted that for many families, the virtual connections are dependent on computer or video chat access and can be difficult for younger children or infants to navigate.

Cook said she hopes to work with the Washoe Human Services Agency and other organizations to see about allowing face-to-face interactions.

“If there are people who are willing to [facilitate visits], let’s look at those cases and figure it out. If there’s a way that we can do that, that’s taking into consideration the health and safety of everyone,” she said. 

Gustafson said that the suspension would adjust to future directives.

“It’s not like an on and off light switch. If there are places that we can loosen up still safely and still following the governor’s directive and making sure our kids are safe, we’ll absolutely, loosen those areas where we can,” he said. “We need to be fluid and flexible as this situation continues to unfold.”

This story was updated at 1:12 p.m. on April 27, 2020, to include information that Clark County’s Department of Family Services is not prohibiting in-person visits.

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