A longtime child advocate is calling for new leadership over Clark County’s child welfare system in wake of the recent death of a 16-month-old girl while in foster care.
The system is failing the children it is supposed to protect, Donna Coleman said.
She said the two previous Clark County Department of Family Services directors didn’t work out and while the current director, Lisa Ruiz-Lee, is trying, she lacks a child welfare background.
“It’s time to stick a fork in it and say we need to do something else,” Coleman said.
County Manager Don Burnette was not available for comment late Tuesday.
“In light of the fact that their leadership picks don’t seem to be working,” Coleman said, “I would like to see an independent child welfare czar.” Similar to a model being implemented in Los Angeles, she said, the czar would have oversight of the entire Clark County child welfare system but would not be a county or state employee. It would be an independent position, and it would be above the director’s position, she said.
Coleman said that child welfare officials are not intervening in cases where it should to help prevent deaths.
Records show 11 out of 27 child fatality or near fatality disclosures this year indicate that the child died or nearly died while Child Protective Services either had an open investigation or had closed an investigation with unsubstantiated allegations for abuse or neglect months before the child’s death or after the child was removed from a home. The disclosures do not indicate the cause of death.
Two of the 11 cases involved children under the care of the county’s foster system, including 16-month-old Michell Momox-Caselis.
The girl was found dead in her crib the morning of Oct. 12 by her foster mother, who was called to her apartment near Jones Boulevard and Vegas Drive when her husband didn’t show up to work. Her husband and Michell’s foster father, Joaquin Juarez-Paez, 37, of Las Vegas, was found dead in his car. A 9-month-old foster child in the family’s care was not harmed.
Police have said they believe Juarez-Paez killed the child and then took his own life.
Michell’s death followed that of a 7-month-old foster girl who died in June after her health deteriorated.
In that case, earlier medical intervention may have saved her life, but the agency could not find the biological parents of the girl to get needed parental consent for a lifesaving procedure. The procedure was eventually performed, but the girl died while being transferred to a Utah hospital. The medical practices are being reviewed in the wake of the infant’s death.
The two girls were placed in foster care after allegations of neglect were made against their biological parents.
Coleman said the system can do everything right, and still lose a child, “but we can do better, we can do a lot better.”
Department of Family Services spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said the public disclosures have nothing to do with whether the department has a substantiated case of abuse or neglect relating to a child’s near fatality or death.
“It is important to note that disclosures are completed in accordance with state law and the completion of such a disclosure does not indicate abuse or neglect contributed directly to a child’s near-death or death,” she said in an email. “The reality is children in the system can also die from natural or accidental causes and still be the subject of a public disclosure based on a family having prior child welfare history and or an open case.”
In one example of the 11 cases, a 3-year-old boy drowned in a bathtub less than three months after Child Protective Services had closed an investigation for unsubstantiated neglect. The mother of the child was arrested in connection with the incident, according to the disclosure.
Still, Jourdan said, it is incorrect to assume that every disclosure posted indicates a child’s near fatality or death occurred as a result of abuse or neglect. There is also no guarantee that an at-risk family will not experience a future crisis once Family Services has closed a case, she added.
“In a system where the monthly average number of (Child Protective Services) investigations is about 850, there are thousands of children and families served by (Family Services), some of who will re-enter the system later because of outside stressors beyond the department’s control,” Jourdan said.
The Clark County Child Death Review Team, which reviews every child death in the community, will review Michell’s death. In addition, Family Services and the Division of Child and Family Services’ central office will complete a case review, in accordance with agency policy, said Mary Woods, spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.
Meanwhile children in the county’s child welfare system are “falling through the fingers, not the cracks,” Coleman said.
She said the agency has struggled since it became separated from the state almost 10 years ago.
Until changes are made, Coleman said, the county is gong to spend millions of dollars in lawsuits if they don’t get a handle on all the issues in the child welfare system.
“Not only are we going to have more dead children,” but the financial costs for the agency will also be extremely high, she said.
Contact Yesenia Amaro at email@example.com or 702-383-0440. Find her on Twitter: @YeseniaAmaro.