March 29, 2022

Clark K. v Willden

Filing date
Case number
Case type
Class Action
Case jurisdiction
U.S. District Courts

The National Center for Youth Law first filed suit to reform the child welfare system in Clark County (Las Vegas), Nevada in 2006. That lawsuit, Clark K. v. Willden (formerly Clark K. v. Guinn), was a class action on behalf of all children in the county's child welfare system. It was filed on Aug. 30, 2006 against Nevada Gov. Kenneth C. Guinn, state Health and Human Services Director Michael Willden, and Clark County officials.

This lawsuit was filed against the Clark County Department of Family Services to end statutory and constitutional violations of the rights of Clark County foster children. The suit challenged the county for failure to protect child abuse victims and children in foster care. The complaint addressed multiple failures of the county child welfare system, including: inadequate child protective services; insufficient caseworker training and high caseloads; inappropriate child placements; insufficient foster parent recruitment efforts and lack of foster parent training or support; lack of representation for children in dependency court proceedings; and failure to provide appropriate educational services.

Clark K. v. Willden charged the defendants with causing serious harm to children in the child welfare system, and called for sweeping, system-wide reform on behalf of the more than 3,600 children in the legal custody of Clark County.  The named plaintiffs included: a sibling group of five children, ages one to eight, whose younger brother died while in a foster home, and who subsequently spent over a year in Child Haven, the County’s shelter for foster youth; a sibling group of three children ages four to seven, who suffered abuse and were denied services while in foster care; a teenage boy who was sent against his will and without having his voice heard in court to an unsafe placement with his mother in another state; and a young girl who was returned to her mother without a safety assessment and subject to abuse and neglect.

The class sought relief under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Nevada Constitution, provisions of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act, provisions of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, provisions of the Early Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment Program of the Medicaid Act, and numerous state statutes and regulations.

The complaint outlined the county’s failures over the past several years:

  • A recent state report indicates that since 2002, at least 79 children have died of abuse or neglect at the hands of their parents, foster parents, or other caregivers while under the watch of Clark County Department of Family Services (DFS). These victims include children who were left at home or in a foster placement after a substantiated report of abuse.
  • A series of federal, state, and county reports have documented the county’s failure to protect child abuse victims and children in foster care. This documentation includes a letter from federal officials to state DHHS Director Michael Willden stating that “the manner in which the continuum of child welfare services is managed in Clark County should be a grave concern to the State.”
  • For years, the county child welfare system has avoided scrutiny by hiding “behind a veil of confidentiality meant to protect children and families, but which the county has used to shield itself from oversight and criticism.”  For example, the county continues to violate federal law requiring public disclosure of findings and information about child abuse victims who have died or suffered near fatalities.

The lawsuit identified the following systemic problems with the Clark County child welfare system:

  • Severe overcrowding and unsafe conditions at Child Haven - an unlicensed child care facility. The facility houses infants and young children with older children with serious behavioral problems, posing a danger to the younger children; has children sleeping on floors and in gymnasiums, and fails to meet the mental health and other medical needs of children
  • High caseloads and inadequate child protective services caseworker training
  • Inadequate investigations of child abuse reports, resulting in children being left in dangerous situations
  • Insufficient foster parent recruitment efforts, inappropriate placements, lack of foster parent training or preparation, and little or no support or monitoring of foster parents.
  • Lack of responsiveness to complaints of children being abused or neglected in foster placements. At the same time, the county retaliates against foster parents who advocate for services or disagree with the agency’s plan for the child.
  • Lack of representation for children in dependency court proceedings
  • Failure to provide appropriate educational services

Counsel: William Grimm, Leecia Welch, and Bryn Martyna, NCYL; Bruno Wolfenzon and Greg Schulman, Wolfenzon Schulman, Las Vegas, NV; Katina Ancar and Sonya U. Sanchez, Farella, Braun + Martel, San Francisco, CA.