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Adam Kealoha Causey, Las Vegas Review Journal Reporter
Madison Sandoval-Lunn, foster care advocate
BY JOAN WHITELY -- The Boxcar Children Mysteries are fictional stories for young readers that start out with four orphan siblings running away, in order to stay together.
The story of five sibling runaways unfolding now in Las Vegas is true, and much sadder.
The Nicholas children – ages 7 to 14 – ran away together Tuesday from Child Haven, the county shelter where youngsters stay while officials investigate whether their parents have abused or neglected them. For almost 24 hours the missing children were the focus of an intense police search. They were found safe, but nearly 10 miles away from Child Haven in a strip mall near Summerlin, and were returned to the shelter.
But this story has no happily ever after.
The Nicholas children are back at a place they don’t want to be, facing the prospect of being separated into different foster homes. Described by the Las Vegas Review-Journal as repeat visitors to Child Haven, they clearly lack a stable family life.
Jolie Courtney, the manager of Child Haven, told the Review-Journal that state law and facility policy prevent staff from stopping children at the emergency shelter from leaving, since they are victims rather than offenders. If friendly persuasion doesn’t quash a child’s desire to walk out, staffers “can’t restrain them. They can’t lock them up. They can’t handcuff them. They can’t hold them with their hands,” said Adam Kealoha Causey, a Review-Journal reporter who has been covering the case.
Under present policy, Child Haven allows its staff to “follow (a runaway) to the end of the property. Once they hit the sidewalk, it sort of becomes a Metro (police) deal,” said Kealoha Causey.
The facility did swiftly report the departure of the Nicholas children to police, according to the reporter. It’s not yet clear how soon the police responded, why Child Haven did not send an adult to tail the children, who were on foot, or how they got across the valley.
State law has a gray area, however. If a child is at risk of self harm, then he or she can be restrained.
If a parental lapse allowed a 7-year-old to wander alone across town in 100-degree weather, wearing only a swimsuit and flimsy sandals, that parent would be investigated and subject to losing physical custody of the child, Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Adam Kealoha Causey, who’s been covering the Nicholas incident says: “So what do you do when local government is responsible?”
The Nicholas children’s choice to run away is understandable to Las Vegas foster-child advocate Madison Sandoval-Lunn, who was separated from three siblings when they entered California foster care. Sibling contact is essential to withstand the trauma of family dysfunction leading to foster care.
When Sandoval-Lunn heard the news about the Nicholas children, she said it jarred loose her own memories of losing siblings through foster placements. “When you’re pulled from your parents, all you can do is stick together … by any means necessary.”
“I can totally relate to that feeling of wanting to get away from the situation,” Sandoval-Lunn said. “It’s fight or flight. … When you are separated from your parents, the only people that can really understand what you’re going through … are your siblings.”
Sandoval-Lunn did run away from one of her foster homes, which she considered abusive. But she did it solo, since her siblings were at other sites. After a week she returned to the system.
Sandoval-LUnn and Kealoha Causey both believe the policy of allowing children to simply walk away from Child Haven needs a revision.
Photo: Teresa Bimbo, mother of runaways
Photo: Jerry Nicholas, father of runaways