weather icon Clear
RJ App
Vegas News, Alerts, ePaper

State, Clark County seeking child welfare leaders

In filling two of Nevada’s highest-profile child welfare positions, advocates say it will be important to keep the hiring process open and transparent to the public.

The vacancies are the result of the departures of Clark County Department of Family Services Director Lisa Ruiz-Lee and Nevada Division of Child and Family Services administrator Amber Howell. Ruiz-Lee announced she was stepping down on July 1. Howell’s last day was Friday.

Both chiefs leave agencies with annual budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars. The county and state departments provide services affecting the lives of thousands of abused and neglected children every year.

Clark County officials have not announced Ruiz-Lee’s last day and no decisions have been made on who will assume her duties in the interim, said Clark County Spokesman Erik Pappa.

Selecting Ruiz-Lee’s replacement needs to be a process similar to that of a school district superintendent search, said Denise Tanata Ashby, executive director for the Children’s Advocacy Alliance.

“What I would like to see is a more open process,” she said Friday, suggesting officials should gather as much community and employee input as possible.

How the positions are filled could either be a “disaster” for child welfare services in the Silver State or it could represent a “huge opportunity” for improvement, child advocates said.

“It depends on how you manage it,” said Christine James-Brown, chief executive officer with the Washington, D.C.-based Child Welfare League of America. “What are the kind of people that we want?”

It will be critical to have a new leader in Clark County in a timely manner, said Thom Reilly, who is a member of the state blue ribbon committee that’s been scrutinizing the troubled system. The committee was appointed last fall to examine the county system’s and court’s shortcomings.

More than 3,000 children are in the Clark County system at any given time. The agency’s annual budget is $155.4 million, including grants. And it has about 950 employees, including those who work part-time.

Reilly said the person needs to have a background in child welfare and would hopefully embrace the recommendations for reform that came out of the blue ribbon committee.

“There’s some good, positive momentum going on in the county,” he said.

To carry the county agency forward, the new director will need to have good leadership and communication skills, as well as the ability to manage multiple community constituents, Reilly said.

Both the state and county positions need managers who are “collaborative” and hold people accountable in the right way, not in a punitive way, James-Brown added.

Additionally, these leaders need to have good media skills.

“The media plays a critical role in influencing what child welfare looks like at the state and local level,” James-Brown said.

In the meantime, ensuring that there’s a smooth transition will be critical, Ashby said.

“I think we can use this as an opportunity to move forward and make important changes that are going to benefit the kids,” she said.

Howell will be taking the director’s position at the Washoe County Department of Social Services. Her annual salary was $118,200, according to Chrystal Main, spokeswoman for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services.

Her successor, who will manage about 985 staff and an annual budget of about $260 million, will make the same salary, according to the job description. This position provides oversight to the child welfare agencies in Clark and Washoe counties as well as the rural areas.

The division has already begun a nationwide recruitment push for the position.

Under state law, the director of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services has the power to appoint the administrator with consent from the governor.

Ruiz-Lee, whose salary in 2014 was $121,076, was appointed to the director’s position in May 2012 by Clark County Manager Don Burnette.

County officials praised her work and the initiatives she developed, such as comprehensive mental health services for children and a system to quickly identify children at risk.

But tensions have been high between Ruiz-Lee and employees and began to simmer about a year ago over safety issues involving children, their families and employees.

Last August, a large number of employees signed a petition and presented it to Clark County commissioners. It called for social workers’ caseloads to be kept at reasonable levels and for the department to make it a priority to provide help and resources to children and employees who need them.

During her tenure, there’s been a few deaths of children in the foster care system and a chronic shortage of foster parents.

Child Haven’s population has exceeded its state-licensed capacity several times in the last year. Child Haven is the county’s emergency shelter for abused and neglected children.

“The tenure in these positions are short because they are very challenging,” Reilly said.

Contact Yesenia Amaro at yamaro@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440. Follow @YeseniaAmaro on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.