Criticism of Clark County Family Services mounted Monday as the department released few details on what Las Vegas police are calling an apparent murder-suicide involving a man and a foster child in his care.
Joaquin Juarez-Paez, 37, of Las Vegas, was found dead in his car in front of the Oasis Vinings apartment complex at 6100 Carmen Blvd., near North Jones Boulevard and Vegas Drive, shortly after 8 a.m. Sunday, according to Las Vegas police.
Police reported that when they arrived at the apartment and sent Juarez-Paez’s wife inside to get the car keys, she found the foster child, 16-month-old Michell Momox-Caselis, dead in her crib. A second foster child, a 6-month-old baby, was found unharmed, police said.
Juarez-Paez’s wife — her given name has not been released by authorities — told police she went looking for her husband after his employer, a company that delivers the Review-Journal under contract, called to say he hadn’t shown up for work.
Police had no record of any calls for service or crimes at the Juarez-Paez apartment, Metro spokesman Jesse Roybal said. While the investigation remains open, police said Juarez-Paez’s wife is not being investigated as a person of interest.
The Clark County coroner’s office has not yet listed a cause or manner for either death, but police said an initial investigation led them to believe Joaquin Juarez-Paez killed the toddler before taking his own life. The children only recently had been placed with the couple, Juarez-Paez’s wife told police.
County Spokesman Erik Pappa said the biological parents of the foster children have been notified of the deaths, but neither he nor the county Department of Family Services would say much about how it chose the man entrusted to care for the toddler and infant.
Advocates for endangered children called the lack of information troubling.
“I think transparency is critical when instances like this occur,” said Barbara Buckley, executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada and a member of the state’s new blue ribbon panel formed to examine shortcomings in Clark County child welfare services. “We need to see all of the data and information so we can ascertain whether there’s anything to learn (from this incident) so tragedies like this don’t happen in the future.”
Prospective foster parents must go through a nationwide criminal background check, 10 weeks of classroom training, two on-site home inspections by Family Services staff, including photographic documentation of the visits, and additional home study, Pappa said Monday. Five reference letters, confirmation of employment and proof of sufficient income also are required before granting a foster care license.
“After the exhaustive licensing process outlined above, the couple in this case were licensed to be foster parents and the department had no areas of concern,” Pappa said in a statement.
Clark County officials would not say when Juarez-Paez and his wife became licensed foster parents, how many times caseworkers had visited the couple’s home, or when was the last time a caseworker visited the couple’s apartment to check on the two foster children.
Pappa said “confidentiality statutes and state policies” prohibit the department from divulging that information but initially had no response when told the state law he cited also requires that no later than 48 hours after an incident “Data or information concerning reports and investigations … must be made available pursuant to this section to any member of the general public upon request if the child who is the subject of a report of abuse or neglect suffered a fatality or near fatality.”
After consulting with other county officials, Pappa said the information would be reviewed by the Nevada attorney general and posted online today in a child fatality disclosure.
“But what I can say is that for in-home placements, caseworkers generally visit once a month and customarily make multiple visits in the early stages of placement,” Pappa said in a separate, written response.
Officials also would not say whether the toddler and the infant were related, why they were in foster care, or what will happen to the infant, who was taken into custody by Child Protective Services.
Pappa would not say if it is common for Family Services to place two children younger than 18 months in the same foster home but did say “foster care licenses designate the age ranges and number of foster children that can be placed in a home.”
“The number of children specified in the license begins with the willingness of the parent but other factors must be considered as well, including the capabilities of the foster parent and the attributes of the home, the number of other children in the home, etc.,” he said.
Pappa declined to release any specific information about the license for the Juarez-Paez home, saying that is also confidential. Nor would he say if the foster providers were getting additional support while caring for two young children.
Pappa also said the department can review a foster care applicant’s mental and physical health records, but he didn’t say if that was done for Juarez-Paez. He also said the foster parent application packet, including letters of reference, are not public record even after the death of the foster parent.
But Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, said the information should be made public — particularly in serious cases where the public interest is clear and Family Services should be as transparent as possible.
“It’s the only way people are going to trust that the kids are being cared for the way they are supposed to be,” he said Monday.
When a public agency doesn’t want to release information, it could give the impression “that there’s something that they are trying to hide,” Smith said. “It hurts their credibility.”
Donna Coleman, a longtime child advocate, said information about the foster home shouldn’t be kept secret.
“I don’t see how that is going to affect any of the outcomes of this situation,” she said. Basic information such as the length of time the couple had been licensed is “something that they should tell us.”
Transparency always has been an issue, and family services never has run properly since it was shifted from state to county government, she said.
The system “is not broken, it’s never been fixed,” she said while criticizing family services Director Lisa Ruiz-Lee and previous directors. “You have to have a strong leader at the helm. So far, this is the third person, and the agency has never run right.”
Pappa declined comment.
Reporters Colton Lochhead and Kimber Laux contributed to this report. Contact Yesenia Amaro at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0440. Find her on Twitter: @YeseniaAmaro. Contact Annalise Little at email@example.com or 702-383-0391. Find her on Twitter: @annalisemlittle.