Emails show rift between Family Services management, workers

Employee union officials publicly declared they “no longer have confidence” in Clark County Family Services Director Lisa Ruiz-Lee, who wrote derogatory emails about staff to her boss as labor tensions mounted over working conditions and safety issues.

Ruiz-Lee’s “leadership abilities will not improve,” according to a sharply worded statement issued Thursday to the Las Vegas Review-Journal by Service Employees International Union Local 1107.

“It is impossible and improbable that there can be a solid, working relationship with our executive management when there has been evidence of a lack of overall integrity,” said the union that represents Family Services workers.

The emails in question cover three months of correspondence between Ruiz-Lee and Assistant County Manager Jeff Wells. The messages offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the workings of the troubled county department, now under state review on multiple fronts, including the October murder-suicide involving a 16-month-old girl and her foster father. The emails were obtained by the Review-Journal through the Nevada Public Records Act.

Ruiz-Lee’s frustration with her staff is apparent in a July 2 email to Wells about the need for employees to work later hours to serve families: “Sorry for the rant, but I am very, very tired of the whining and the fire drill exercises that could instead be used toward productive activities.”

Ruiz-Lee declined to be interviewed for this story but issued a written statement Friday that praised the efforts of most of her staff.

Rifts between Service Employees International Union Local 1107 and Family Services management became apparent in August when the union presented Clark County commissioners with a petition expressing job safety concerns and seeking more manageable caseloads for social workers. The petition was signed by some 390 employees, or 61 percent of Family Services’ union-eligible workforce.

The emails show Ruiz-Lee was aware of the petition before it went public but believed any fallout would damage the union.

“We are pulling together many, many data points and related information to present related to whatever the petition may be,” Ruiz-Lee wrote Wells on July 2. “But, at the end of it, I hope SEIU understand (sic) that what I have and know is so much worse than what they do. And a public conversation around most of this will only make them look like the firefighters or worse.”

The Clark County Fire Department became mired in a sick-leave abuse scandal in 2011 that gave firefighters a black eye. Wells said last week he assumed Ruiz-Lee’s comment was in reference to a 2013 study on Family Service employee compensatory time off.

That study found comp time, at time-and-a-half, was impeding the department’s ability to manage caseloads.

The study, which looked at nine Child Protective Services investigators, found that on average each investigator was off work about three months in a nine-month period using comp time and other forms of leave.

“At the time she wrote that, she wasn’t anticipating you guys were going to ask me questions about it,” Wells said of Ruiz-Lee’s email. “But I think she was just making the comment about the magnitude of the number of hours off, regardless of what category those hours were.”

After the study, management restricted comp time accrual and required prior management approval. That has reduced the comp time on the books by 45 percent in a 14-month period — from 24,501 hours more than a year ago to 13,392 hours now.

SEIU officials said in a statement Thursday that the way Ruiz-Lee references her staff in correspondence is “no surprise to DFS union members because it’s the way she behaves toward us in the workplace, day-in and day-out — with no dignity and no respect.”

The aside about firefighters, the union said, demonstrates “the low regard she has for public employees across our community.”

In a written statement, Ruiz-Lee said she has “the highest regard for public service and the many dedicated public servants who help make this community one of the best places to live.

“I do not believe there is any more important public service than that which is provided by the Department of Family Services. Every DFS employee must hold themselves to the highest standard of performance — and the great majority of our employees do exactly that,” Ruiz-Lee wrote. “However, SEIU continues to support and provide a platform for a very small number of employees who do not always exemplify the highest standards that the work of child welfare demands.”

SYSTEM SHORTCOMINGS

The strained relationship between the SEIU and Ruiz-Lee is just one of many challenges now facing Family Services.

In September, Nevada Supreme Court Justice Nancy Saitta called for a Blue Ribbon panel to examine child welfare problems in Clark County. Among them: capacity concerns at Child Haven, the county’s emergency shelter for abused and neglected children; foster parents’ frustrations with the system; delays in the termination of parental rights; and caseworker training and qualifications.

Federal backing for child welfare reform in Clark County came after the Oct. 12 killing of 16-month-old Michell Momox-Caselis by her foster father, Joaquin Juarez-Paez, who then committed suicide. The girl’s biological parents and the couple who planned to adopt her say that they raised concerns about the foster home numerous times, but authorities didn’t listen. State authorities plan to conduct an independent investigation into the toddler’s death.

To improve the monitoring of foster children, the department earlier this year asked permanency workers who visit foster parent homes to schedule as much as eight hours per two-week pay period to work after 5 p.m. Ruiz-Lee stressed the need for her staff to be flexible in a July 2 email to Wells.

“We are not a banker hours operation, and whether staff like the schedules or not doesn’t matter to me,” Ruiz-Lee wrote. “I don’t mean to sound callous, but I work until late at night, on weekends, and on vacation. Because that’s what the job demands.”

Some employees don’t like changes, Wells said.

“Do I think it’s the majority? No,” Wells said. “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.”

In the same email about “whining,” Ruiz-Lee wrote, “At the end of all this, when something goes wrong in a foster home because workers haven’t been there, it is not the 99 percent of the complaining staff who are served with the lawsuit it’s me.”

PETITIONING FOR CHANGE

In early July, Ruiz-Lee sent Wells a copy of the SEIU’s Safety First petition, which listed three areas of concern: lowering caseload levels for Family Services workers; improving coordination between the agency and community partners; and involving front-line employees in developing a safety policy.

“Here is the petition,” Ruiz-Lee wrote to Wells on July 2. “No mention of schedules are on it.”

A week later, on July 9, county management met with union officials to discuss their concerns. A second meeting followed, on July 24, before the union went public with its petition.

Although union officials said they have communicated their concerns to Ruiz-Lee since last fall, she maintains union leaders and stewards did not discuss specific issues with her. In her written statement, she said issues weren’t raised in March, when she lunched with two union stewards. As for staffing, nearly 100 positions have been added in the past two years, she said.

Clark County commissioners, union leaders and Family Services’ administrators plan to meet Nov. 12, but union leaders have guarded expectations.

“We are discouraged by their responses and now uncertain of whether any future meeting with the current (Family Services’) administration would be beneficial,” the SEIU statement said.

But Clark County Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani on Friday said she hopes “people would keep an open mind until we have that meeting.”

After presenting their petition, SEIU leaders started meeting with County Commissioners Giunchigliani, Susan Brager and Mary Beth Scow. On Sept. 12, union leaders provided recommendations for improvements in the child welfare agency to the commissioners. Family Services later provided responses.

Among the issues raised to the commissioners was Ruiz-Lee’s lack of child welfare experience. A county employee since 1998, she was appointed director of the agency in 2012 and has a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s in educational psychology. Before becoming assistant director of Family Services in 2007, she worked in the Clark County manager’s office.

Asked if she sees Ruiz-Lee’s lack of child welfare experience as an issue, Giunchigliani said: “I tend to always think that the person in that role should have some background in the area.”

A statement from Family Services portrayed questions about Ruiz-Lee’s background as an SEIU attack.

“The union crusade against DFS Director Lisa Ruiz-Lee is nothing more than an attempt to assassinate her character because she and her leadership team have increased service standards and work diligently to hold employees accountable for their work,” Family Services spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan said.

STAFF BEHAVING ‘BADLY’

When Family Services gets sued, Ruiz-Lee is typically called to testify about her agency. In a Sept. 17 email, Ruiz-Lee asked Wells to tell Giunchigliani why she was unable to attend a meeting.

“It might be helpful to let her know I am in deposition for the millionth time because our staff behave badly,” Ruiz-Lee wrote.

Wells said Ruiz-Lee wasn’t saying that Family Services staff behave badly.

“Obviously, she’s exaggerating because she has obviously not had a million depositions, but for the nonlawyers of the world, depositions can be stressful because you’re sitting there being grilled under oath,” Wells said last week. “… I don’t think it’s anything other than she was nervous about doing a deposition and was complaining.”

SEIU leaders expressed disappointment about that email, saying: “It’s disheartening and demoralizing that she would make a cynical, sarcastic remark about such a likely grave subject.”

Donna Coleman, a child advocate in Southern Nevada, called Ruiz-Lee’s comment “sophomoric.”

“I think staff behaving badly is an understatement,” Coleman said. “When staff behave badly at DFS or CPS, sometimes the result is death.”

Contact Ben Botkin at bbotkin@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2904. Find him on Twitter: @BenBotkin1. Contact Yesenia Amaro at yamaro@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440. Find her on Twitter: @yeseniaamaro.

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