‘Someone is going to die:’ Workers at county children’s shelter warn of dire conditions

By: - October 21, 2021 5:38 am

(Photo courtesy SEIU Local 1107)

One employee was thrown through a glass window.

Another was bitten so hard it drew blood. She took a photo and texted it to her union steward: “Typical Friday.”

A third worker retired earlier than planned out of fear the repeated kicks to her legs would eventually impede her own ability to walk.

One by one, first in messages with each other, then in reports to their supervisors and elected officials, and now in impassioned pleas to the public, employees of Clark County’s Department of Family Services are sharing their stories and hoping to ring the alarm about what they say are dangerous conditions that put both themselves — and the community’s most vulnerable kids — at risk.

“Our members are doing the best they can,” says Grace Vergara-Mactal, executive director of SEIU Local 1107, which represents many of the government employees within DFS. “What choice do they have but to take care of these kids? They get kicked, black eyes. I get pictures constantly from members sending bruises, getting their hair pulled out…”

SEIU held a walkout demonstration early Wednesday outside Child Haven, the county’s temporary housing facility for abused and neglected children. More than a hundred workers participated in hopes of boosting the union’s demands, which include hiring dozens of employees and rewriting policies they believe are outdated.

Vergara-Mactal offered a stark warning to the county, state and community: “If you don’t fix this, somebody is going to die. If it’s not one of the children, it’ll be one of my members.”

Overwork and overcrowded

Child Haven’s average daily population in September was 78 children. In August, it was 76 children.

In February 2020, right before the onset of the pandemic, Child Haven’s average daily population was 75 children. Numbers fell during business closures -- dropping to a low of 21 children on average in June 2020 -- but have returned to those high numbers.

The facility is licensed as a child care facility by the State of Nevada to house up to 90 children. That number has been raised over the years to reflect the reality of the facility, which cannot turn children away even when it reaches its posted capacity.

SEIU workers contend they aren’t adequately staffed to handle up to 90 children, especially when the population they serve by definition has suffered some sort of trauma and requires emergency intervention. The center is licensed as a daycare facility, but staff say it's become a dumping ground for children with mental health or delinquency issues.

“We are not a mental health facility,” said Keisha Caruthers, a child development technician at Child Haven, “but that’s what we’re dealing with now."

Caruthers says many children require one-on-one care. Many act out physically. She recalled one day where she and five others had to rotate providing individual assistance with one young girl who had to be kept separate from other kids.

While employees are provided some training in things like deescalation, there is a limit in what they are able to do -- especially when occupancy is high. One of SEIU's demands is that Child Haven employ a clinical psychologist. Another ask is for a law enforcement officer to be on campus at all times to deter incidents from children prone to violence outbursts.

Workers believe the status quo is retraumatizing kids.

A child removed from a home where they've been neglected and exposed to constant fighting from abusive parents isn't going to heal in a shelter where people are constantly fighting, argues Caruthers.

“These kids with mental health (issues) are hurting functioning children,” said one county employee who has helped at the facility. “We take children who have trauma and abuse and put them in a safe space -- Child Haven -- except it’s not a safe space. We have kids who are hiding in their rooms under blankets… It is not safe for the kids there. And there’s not enough staff to protect them...”

She continued, “I liken it to Lord of the Flies.”

And that can come with devastating consequences, the workers warn.

Staff say pimps routinely wait just outside the facility to pick up teenage girls, who cannot be physically stopped by staff from leaving the premises.

“One of the girls came in, recruited these children and then went and pimped them out,” said Vergara-Mactal. “These are children. These are young girls that are supposed to be protected in Child Haven.”

Clark County its public communications office declined to make anyone from Child Haven or DFS available for an interview about the concerns being raised by the SEIU workers.

But an emailed statement provided by county spokesperson Dan Kulin said DFS management is “actively working” to add staff to its department.

“COVID-19 forced us to pause hiring for almost a year, and we are working diligently to catch up,” read the statement. “During the past 30 days, the county has hired 29 new DFS staff and we are conducting job interviews and making employment offers to prospective employees every week.”

SEIU says hiring 29 new people doesn’t begin to address the needs of the department.

Kulin on Thursday afternoon told the Current that DFS has an additional 85 full-time positions open. Six of those are at on the Child Haven campus.

At Child Haven specifically, 59 of 65 full-time positions are filled, and 40 of 68 part-time positions are filled.

"Plus we have seven prospective part-time employees going through background checks, which means we should soon have 47 part-time positions filled," said Kulin in an email. "We are actively recruiting to fill the vacant positions."

The county's original statement in response to the SEIU demonstration also said: "We also share union members’ concerns regarding the children with acute mental health issues at Child Haven. There has been an ongoing lack of mental health services for children across the country and in Southern Nevada. To address this, the county is working to hire mental health professionals and create programs to meet the immediate mental health needs of children in our community."

No specific details were provided.

Issues beyond Child Haven

Issues within the greater Department of Child and Family Services are equally troubling, say workers.

Child Protective Services receives thousands of calls and referrals per month. According to the most recent monthly statistical overview available on the county’s website, CPS answered 2,110 calls on its community hotline and 1,647 calls on its emergency line in March 2021. Not all of those calls warrant an investigation.

The department also received 2,527 abuse and neglect referrals that month.

It investigated 1,303 cases.

The burden of  their important work weighs heavy on many of the DFS employees, whose experiences range, depending on supervisor, from being denied overtime they requested to try and keep up with caseloads, to working more than 30 hours of overtime a week and not having any time to live their own lives.

One DFS supervisor in the initial assessment division, which includes the social workers who investigate the reports of abuse and neglect, said many employees have begun taking psychotropic medications to address the depression and anxiety brought on by their emotionally demanding jobs.

That anxiety comes from having to rush through assessments because they are pressured to move on to the next case and make specific quotas for the county.

“We’re not servicing anybody with quality work,” the supervisor said. “We’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off, trying to do all this quantity work.”

She said she tries to do little things to show support and empathy for her struggling employees.

“As great as that is,” she added, “it’s not enough."

What they need, say the union reps, are more workers to ease the burden.

SEIU claims DFS commissioned and received an independent time study on staffing needs within its department. It concluded earlier this year that the department needed an additional 106 employees. That report, which the union says it didn’t see until July after they requested it, focused on field positions, such as those in Child Protective Services. It did not analyze employees at Child Haven.

Caruthers, the Child Haven employee, estimates an additional 20 to 30 employees are needed at the facility.

Kulin, the Clark County spokesperson, said in an email he "believe(s) this was a report we did" but did not have additional details on the time study.

Vergara-Mactal acknowledged that budget restraints are a reality and the county may not have the financial ability to immediately hire more than 100 new employees.

“We need to have a conversation about what they can and cannot do,” she adds. “They have an obligation to make sure their employees are safe.”

Michelle Maese, a longtime employee of DFS, adds that leadership within the county could have pushed state lawmakers to provide more resources to address the underlying issues.

“They had this report during the legislative session,” said Maese, who also serves as secretary-treasurer of SEIU Local 1107. “They could have easily said, ‘We need to advocate for more positions now’ and brought attention and they waited. We told them. How dishonest. You waited.”

Maese is quick to dismiss the pandemic as a valid excuse for why the issue might have fallen on the backburner this year.

“Kids are going to die (if nothing happens). We need safe kids. At the end of the day, somebody could have advocated for us to get more money, more dollars for more positions. And they didn’t. They did not do that.”

Vergara-Mactal says the Clark County Commission knows about the issues and at least four of the commissioners -- William McCurdy, Tick Segerblom, Michael Naft and Justin Jones -- have toured the facility recently. All three seemed to understand the needs, she continued, but so far their understanding hasn’t manifested into action by the county manager or department.

Maese recalled that during his tour of the facility McCurdy witnessed a fight break out between two teens and intervened with staff to help de-escalate the situation.

“He took time to sit down with the youth that had the fight,” she said. “That was great.”

“They are compassionate and kind,” added Vergara-Mactal of the elected officials. “But I think the response is (that) they’re working on it. Eight months. We came (to the county) eight months ago. … We need to get it fixed now.”

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated with the most recent data from Clark County, as well as with additional information on the number of openings within the Department of Family Services.]

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, three children and one mutt.