(Sean Whaley/Nevada News Bureau) – Questions are being raised about whether the head of the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services is qualified for her job, but the performance of Diane Comeaux, appointed as administrator in June 2008, is being defended by her boss and lawmakers.
An individual interviewed by the Nevada News Bureau, who asked to be identified only as a “concerned citizen,” said the person in charge of such an important agency should have an advanced degree and years of experience working on child welfare issues.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” the person said. “This is the type of position where a national search is performed. We need the best person available. She is not the best available.”
The individual said several people have brought the concerns to the attention of the governor, lawmakers and Comeaux’s boss with no response.
Comeaux does not have a college degree. She declined to comment on the concerns. She earns $112,000 a year in the position.
She does have the strong support of her boss, Health and Human Services Director Mike Willden, and lawmakers who have been made aware of the concerns over her qualifications.
Gov. Jim Gibbons said he too is aware of the concerns but is deferring to Willden, who said Comeaux has performed well in the job over the past 16 months.
“Simply having a degree in sociology or social work doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to be a good manager or a bad manager,” Gibbons said. “I’m aware of the concern but I don’t micromanage decisions made by department heads.”
The concerns appear to receive some backing, however, from Richard Klarberg, president of the Council on Accreditation. COA is an independent, not-for-profit, child- and family-service and behavioral healthcare accrediting organization based in New York. COA currently accredits 38 different service areas and over 60 types of programs.
While not commenting on the specifics of the Nevada situation, Klarberg said to be accredited with COA, an agency would have to be overseen by a person with an advanced degree in a field related to the agency’s mission. A minimum of five years of experience would also be required.
“There needs to be at the head of the agency someone who is qualified, who is a degreed person,” he said. “This doesn’t mean that someone who does not have such a degree might not be a successful and highly competent person.”
But trying to change the lives of vulnerable children and families is a challenging and difficult job that requires such experience, Klarberg said.
COA can accredit an agency in several ways, he said. Sometimes a legislature mandates agency accreditation. Sometimes it is required to settle litigation over the provision of services. Or an agency can seek it out voluntarily. Nevada’s program is not accredited.
“When someone in charge has no experience in this area and lacks credentials, it makes you wonder,” he said. “Potentially it has a demoralizing impact on the line workers. It is an area of concern.”
Willden said Comeaux has served successfully in the No. 2 positions at both Medicaid and Child and Family Services prior to her appointment, although both positions were budget and fiscal in nature and not related to the delivery of services to clients.
“I looked at her skill set and her ability to run large government organizations,” he said. “For years, DCFS was not able to solve the fiscal nut. They ran in the red and didn’t have good controls. It was important to bring in someone with the discipline on the fiscal matters.”
Her counterparts in Clark and Washoe counties also say she is doing a good job, Willden said.
The agency in the past has been run by individuals with the credentials cited by the critic, but for various reasons the past three administrators did not stay, he said.
Comeaux meets the qualifications under state law, which says only: “The administrator must be appointed on the basis of his education, training, experience, demonstrated abilities and his interest in the provision of services to children and families and related programs.”
“I have full confidence in her abilities,” Willden said.
As further evidence of Comeaux‘s lack of experience, the person who has raised the concern points to a $110,000 contract approved in September by the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee to hire a consultant to assist the agency, “on issues related to child welfare including federal and state legislation, professional skills development, organizational improvement and policy development.”
If Comeaux can do the job, why the need for the consultant, the person asked.
Willden said such contracts are routine for his agency, and are implemented when a lot of work needs to get done in a limited amount of time. The contract in question is bringing in a highly qualified person with 25 years of experience to help implement an improvement plan required by federal officials, he said.
Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said she believes Comeaux is doing a good job in the position.
“I’m more interested in performance than a degree,” she said.
Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas, said the selection of Comeaux has brought some stability to an agency that has seen a number of different administrators in recent years. Buckley said she is aware of the concerns, and that the licensed social worker staff in the agency would prefer to have such a professional in the top position.
“But we need someone good and we need stability at the top,” she said. “And that is what we have.”
But the concerned citizen who raised the issue said none of the arguments presented by Willden or lawmakers make Comeaux qualified to run the agency.
“Gibbons does not understand how serious this is,” the source said. “Comeaux was over fiscal. She has no experience at all. And as a taxpayer it is infuriating to be asked to shell out ($112,000) plus benefits for someone who is not qualified for the job.”