ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Brian Blalock, the embattled cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department, stepped down as the leader of the state’s child protective services agency on Tuesday.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who appointed Blalock shortly after assuming office in 2019, announced the personnel change during a Tuesday news conference in Santa Fe. Blalock didn’t attend the press conference because he’s on vacation, said Lujan Grisham.
The governor said that Blalock is leaving CYFD due to an unnamed job opportunity for his wife in California. Blalock worked as a San Francisco Bay Area attorney prior to directing CYFD.
Lujan Grisham cited “administrative missteps” when announcing the leadership change.
Blalock has been under fire for the state agency’s use of the encrypted Signal messaging app, which automatically deletes interpersonal conversations after 24 hours. Critics were up in the arms about the agency’s practice, charging that the state’s child services department deleted life-saving information for vulnerable youth and families. Searchlight New Mexico first reported the Signal controversy.
Blalock didn’t respond to multiple text messages to his personal cell phone.
Blalock’s resignation isn’t the only change in state leadership over agencies charged with child welfare. On July 29, the governor’s office named Kurt Steinhaus as New Mexico Public Education Department cabinet secretary. He replaces Ryan Stewart, who cited personal reasons for his departure.
Vigil, 62, will be coming out of retirement to head CYFD effective October 1. The senior judge, who presided over the Children’s Court for a decade, left the New Mexico State Supreme Court at the end of June 2021.
Mariana Padilla, director of the state Children’s Cabinet, will serve as interim CYFD secretary after Blalock’s departure, which is scheduled to take place this month.
“I’m honored to have had the chance to serve the families and children of New Mexico,” said Blalock in a prepared statement,
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A first round of pandemic aid payments to young adults transitioning out of foster care is expected to go out this month after New Mexico received $1.8 million from the federal government for the program.
Information on the second round of applications — open to New Mexicans aged 21 to 26 who were involved in the state foster care system — will be available on the CYFD homepage in early August, according to the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.
The COVID-19 pandemic assistance funds come via the Supporting Foster Youth and Families Through the Pandemic Act, part of the $2.3 trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. U.S. Congress enacted the law, which provides $900 billion in coronavirus pandemic relief, on December 27, 2020.
CYFD also plans on holding roundtable discussions with youth and community providers in August to decide how to distribute some of the federal monies.
“We want to get input on how to use some of that funding so it’s not a one-sided decision,” said Emily Martin, CYFD acting program deputy director for protective services. Martin said the state wasn’t required to match the federal stimulus payment.
CYFD said the organization has financially served former foster youth throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Young people who transitioned out of the system and were receiving a monthly stipend from CYFD have also gotten an additional $175 a month since April 2020.
Charlie Moore-Pabst, a spokesperson for CYFD, explained that the additional money comes from a temporary 6.2% federal medical assistance percentage (FMAP) rate hike that began in March 2020. The temporary rate hike was made possible by Former President Donald Trump’s emergency invocation of the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988, which is scheduled to end September 30, 2021.
“Rather than use this increase for internal spending, CYFD chose to distribute the funds to our kids in care to assist families during this difficult time,” Moore-Pabst said.
Moore-Pabst said CYFD provided approximately $4,000 in cell phone and data cards and partnered with Heart Gallery Foundation and the Junior League to distribute hygiene items, diapers, and wipes to eligible youth, including young parents.
Moore-Pabst said that there weren’t any interruptions or delays to the distribution of funds for the Chafee Foster Care Independent Living Program, which supplies housing vouchers, and the Education Training Voucher (ETV) Program, which provides post-secondary education grants.
“Our philosophy during the pandemic has been to get our families and kids more cash, because that’s what they need,” said CYFD Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock.
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Cliff and Debra Gilmore say they didn’t have any ties to New Mexico when the married couple uprooted their lives in Vancouver, Washington, to move to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they landed jobs with the state Children, Youth and Families Department in late 2020.
Debra Gilmore was hired to lead CYFD’s new Office of Children’s Rights while Cliff Gilmore worked as a public information officer. But the Gilmores’ stints at CYFD didn’t last long.
They were both fired on May 6 in what they allege was an act of retaliation for raising ethical concerns within CYFD. Last week, they filed a lawsuit against the department in the state First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe.
The Gilmores’ grievances include CYFD’s use of the encrypted Signal text messaging application, where inter-agency conversations were set to auto-delete after 24 hours. Child welfare attorneys and advocates have said that the practiceharmed New Mexico’s vulnerable youth and families.
CYFD Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock has defended the use of Signal, which he said was appropriate for “transitory” messages, but the department says it has stopped using it since the practice was first brought to light by Searchlight New Mexico.
The suit also alleges that CYFD violated state procurement laws by hiring a San Francisco Bay Area company to manage a $4.5 million comprehensive child welfare information system, a modernized child welfare database and case management system for foster families, social workers, and state officials.
“I believe these ethical issues negatively affect the children and families who the agency is designed to serve,” Debra Gilmore said in a phone interview Saturday.
Blalock, a former San Francisco area attorney, and deputy cabinet secretary Terry Locke, are also named personally as defendants in the civil suit. The Gilmores are seeking reinstatement to their jobs at CYFD in addition to double back pay, compensatory damages, and emotional distress damages.
“While CYFD appreciates the opportunity to clarify misinformation, CYFD cannot discuss personal personnel matters or threatened litigation,” said CYFD spokesperson Charlie Moore-Pabst.
Cliff Gilmore told Youth Today he received more pushback in his few months working as a CYFD public information officer than he did in more than 20 years as a public affairs official for the United States Marine Corps.
“I was expected to deliver the message that we are a very transparent organization and that we take transparency seriously, but then I would consistently run into, ‘No, we’re not going to say anything in response to this query or we’re only going to give a one-word answer,’” Cliff Gilmore said.
The Gilmores’ lawsuit is the latest filed against CYFD under the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act. In January, a Hobbs, New Mexico. foster momcountersued CYFD after the agency claimed that the woman posted confidential information online about her former foster children who had gone missing.
New Mexico doesn’t have an independent organization to investigate complaints against its child protective services department, and repeated legislation to create such a body has failed. According to theNational Conference of State Legislatures, as of July 2020, approximately 32 states have children’s ombudsman offices or an office of the child advocate.
“There are advocates, legislators, and parents [in New Mexico] who are looking for space to come together to create independent oversight,” said Debra Gilmore, who has worked in the child welfare industry for 30 years.
“We did soul searching after this happened to both of us on the same day at the same time,” Debra Gilmore said. “We’re committed to doing what we came here to do and that is to serve the children and families in New Mexico.”
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Recently released data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows improvements to New Mexico’s child well-being, but the state remains a tough place to be a kid.
The 2021 national Kids Count Data Book ranks New Mexico 49th in the nation in 16 key child well-being indicators such as child poverty and teen birth rates. The state jumped ahead of Mississippi, which fell to the bottom of the country for overall child well-being.
The Data Book — which collects economic, family and community, education, and health statistics — ranked New Mexico last in child well-being in 2013, 2018, 2019, and 2020.
“I’m cautiously optimistic about the direction we’re heading,” said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, an Albuquerque-based child welfare advocacy organization. “For about a decade up to 2018, we really weren’t seeing much improvement.”
Since 2010, New Mexico has progressed in child poverty rates (17% improvement), health insurance for kids (45%), decreased teen birth rates (55%), and on-time graduation for high school students (32%). A majority of the numbers were collected in 2019 prior to the COVID-19 crisis.
New Mexico remained in the bottom spot in the survey’s education metrics, which also factor measurables including the number of young children who aren’t enrolled in school, reading proficiency for fourth graders, and math proficiency for eighth graders.
“It’s really important for the legislature to continue deliberations over how to address the findings of the Yazzie/Martinez decision in public education,” said Jimenez.
Jimenez also sees encouraging signs with the state’s jump in health care for youth — from 41st in 2020 to 37th in 2021 — but warned that the New Mexico Department of Health and state policymakers need to continue prioritizing health care opportunities for vulnerable youth and families.
“The department sees this as empirical evidence that focusing our efforts on our strategic plan — informed by the guidance of child welfare experts and youth and families and not political agenda — is the only way we will see meaningful improvement in child well-being in the state,” department spokesperson Charlie Moore-Pabst said.
Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Minnesota took the top spots for overall child well-being while New Mexico’s neighboring states of Utah (5), Colorado (15), Arizona (40), and Texas (46) saw mixed performances.
The data includes limited amounts of pandemic indicators. As of March 2021, New Mexico fared slightly below the national average for adults in households with children who felt down, depressed, or hopeless and at the national average of 13% for family and youth food insecurity.
The Data Book shows that the state has struggled with children who took fewer classes or canceled post-secondary plans during the coronavirus pandemic, fairing 10 points below the 53% national average. A survey released bySave the Children in March 2021 slotted New Mexico in the nation’s 47th spot for protecting and providing for youth during the upheaval of 2020.
Disclosure: The Annie E. Casey Foundation is a funder of the Center for Sustainable Journalism.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The brutal abuse of a New Mexico toddler, allegedly by her parents, has pitted the state’s child protective services against the girl’s former foster mother, who sought help online after the child and her siblings went missing.
The little girl, whose name is being withheld by Youth Today, was abandoned at a North Carolina hospital with a fractured skull in October 2020 — six months after she and her siblings disappeared following a trial home visit with their biological parents.
The foster mother, Jill Jones, said she was trying to raise the alarm when she posted about the missing children on her Facebook page.
Before the girl and her siblings were located, CYFD revoked Jones’ foster parent license and sued her, arguing the foster mom of 11 years had violated the agency’s confidentiality policy with her posts.
Jones denies she posted confidential information and has characterized the lawsuit as retaliatory.
“I didn’t have a choice,” she said. “The kids went missing and I’m a mother. What else was I supposed to do?”
CYFD spokesperson Charlie Moore-Pabst declined comment, citing pending litigation.
According to the Hobbs News-Sun, the little girl Jones had fostered was dropped off at a Charlotte hospital with serious injuries by her mother, who gave a fake name to hospital employees. The mother reportedly fled the hospital as medical personnel prepared the girl for surgery, but left her purse with identification inside.
Both parents were eventually apprehended and charged in New Mexico with four felony counts of third-degree child abuse and one felony count of fourth-degree custodial interference.
The case has become a rallying cry for critics of CYFD who say the agency needs stricter oversight.
Two bills introduced during the 2021 legislative session sought to amend how the agency is held accountable. One died in committee.
“Additional collaboration is therefore needed between the [New Mexico Substitute Care Advisory] Council, state agencies and our Native American communities before any of the amendments … can be enacted,” the governor wrote at the time.
State Sen. Gay Kernan (R-Chaves, Eddy and Lea), one of the bill’s co-sponsors, blamed CYFD Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock for failing to reach out to Native American leaders, which led to the veto. Blalock has come under scrutiny for directing employees to use the encrypted chat service Signal, reportedly to skirt open records requests, Searchlight New Mexico has reported.
Kernan expressed disappointment with Grisham as well.
“I felt that at the end of the day the governor never intended to sign the bill,” she said.
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, did not respond to a request for comment.
Albuquerque attorney Matthew Beck, who represents Jones, said that the lack of an independent body to scrutinize grievances against CYFD harms foster parents and children.
“It’s CYFD who’s revoking [Jones’ foster parent] license and hearing the administrative appeal, and it’s CYFD … who makes the determination at the end of the day whether to uphold that revocation of the license,” Beck said. “The process appears to lack a check and balance.”
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico education officials are budgeting up to $10 million in pandemic relief money to create internships for high school students, while nonprofits and school districts are bringing back summer enrichment opportunities to meet rising demand.
As many as 2,600 students across New Mexico could participate in the internship program, according to the Public Education Department, which announced the program on Tuesday. The department started developing the program last year, and is in the process of hiring up to 150 part-time adult coordinators.
Seven tribal and 18 county governments have signed up to coordinate internships in their offices or at partner nonprofits, including summer camps.
“I think there’s a lot that they can do in our summer program setting,” said Colby Wilson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Central New Mexico, which is planning on placing some of the interns through a partnership with county officials. “And it’s good for the high school kids to get that experience, just basic soft skills of showing up on time and working with a team and planning for different programs.”
Some parents are unsure about sending kids to group activities, and Wilson said registrations have been a little slower. Summer program signups coincide with a vaccine rollout for children aged 12 and up, and demand could return to normal. On Wednesday, state officials said that over 50,000 residents aged 12-18 registered for the vaccine during the first week of May.
A third of New Mexico children were not in a summer program in 2019 but would have enrolled if they could, according to a survey released Wednesday by America After 3PM and the Afterschool Alliance, indicating a gap in demand for as many as 100,000 children.
Responses came from 428 New Mexico households polled between January and March of 2020. Parents cited high costs and lack of transportation as barriers.
Other nonprofits are scaling up now.
“Now I’m fully going back in person,” said Lina Germann, founder of STEM Santa Fe, which offers technology camps. “And this time we have spots for 160 kids.”
Child care centers are expected to return to full capacity after cutting half the spots last year, according to Early Childhood Education and Care Department spokesman Micah McCoy. They’re also expanding early literacy and school readiness programs this summer.
New Mexico officials say a big challenge will be providing rural summer programs.
“We are working with our out-of-school time network providers to try to make sure that we can (meet demand) — especially in those areas of the state where there aren’t established ecosystems for summer learning and summer enrichment,” said Education Secretary Ryan Stewart.
School districts will likely take the lead, after receiving over $1 billion in pandemic aid. At least 20% must be spent on helping students recover academically and socially in programs like summer school and camps, though they have a few years to spend the funds.
More than $200 million in state funds is also available for schools to add 10-25 learning days. But at least 18% of school districts will turn down most of the funds, according to a Public Education Department preliminary survey last month.
Some nonprofit leaders say they could better use the federal funds.
Wilson said funding uncertainty stems from the late passage of federal funds, creating a domino effect of delays. His group is waiting for a response on grant applications with the state and Albuquerque Public Schools.
“Now everyone is scrambling to get this money to the right people,” Wilson said.
The Public Education Department says it’s aiming to ink contracts with partners by the end of May, meaning much of the intern hiring might not start until June — when Wilson said the club starts its summer program.
“That seems tough to me,” Wilson said.
Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. This story was produced under RFA’s America Statehouse News Initiative.
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The check won’t arrive until mid-July, but Katrina Peters already knows what she’ll do with her Child Tax Credit payments. The 20-year-old mother of three has applied to work as a driver with a food delivery app, and the extra cash is earmarked for repairing, registering and insuring her car.
“I just need to make sure it’s 100% and then I can start working and get an income,” Peters said, cradling her 3-week-old son, Armani. “That’s where it starts.”
The payments are a key part of Democrats’ COVID-19 aid bill passed in March, but for policymakers they are more than just an attempt to help families recover from the pandemic. The monthly checks of up to $300 per child for millions of families are part of an ambitious attempt to shrink child poverty and rethink the American social safety net in the process.
With an emphasis on direct, no-strings cash support, the payments are a deliberate departure from a system that for decades has tried to control how Americans spend their government assistance by funneling it to food, housing or child care. Peters is as free to use the cash on her car as she is to spend it on diapers.
“There’s something huge happening with the idea that the lowest-income people need cash assistance the most,” said Teague Gonzalez, public benefits director with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “The pandemic opened up a connection to the idea of giving people cash and letting them decide how to use it.”
The expanded CTC payments, which are due to begin going out July 15, are only meant to last a year, but architects and proponents aren’t trying to hide the fact that they want to make this permanent. The coronavirus pandemic, they say, laid bare the inadequacies of America’s support system and provided the political momentum to make lasting changes.
“If implemented well, this could be transformative,” said Emma Mehrabi, director of poverty policy at the Children’s Defense Fund. “This could cut child poverty in nearly half.”
Part of the American Rescue Plan, the Child Tax Credit provisions will increase the payments and greatly expand the number of families eligible. The practical result will be direct payments for each child to families ranging from impoverished to solidly middle class — $3,600 per year for children under age 6 and $3,000 per year for older children. Roughly 39 million households will receive at least partial payments, covering an estimated 88 percent of American children.
In places like New Mexico, a state with one of the highest rates of children living in poverty, this is a potential crossroads. One in 4 New Mexican children is considered impoverished, compared with 1 in 7 nationally.
With three kids under age 6, Peters is due to receive up to $900 per month, and all of it is welcome. Her construction worker boyfriend has been out of work due to the pandemic, she said, her government subsidized housing voucher has expired and only the national eviction moratorium has protected her. Armani requires a special kind of baby formula that she can’t buy with her government nutrition program benefits.
“Sixteen dollars a can, and he goes through it in two or three days,” she said.
Democratic New Mexico Sen. Martin Heinrich said the philosophy behind the payments is to treat child poverty as an avoidable traumatic event — one that has been proved to impact future academic performance, emotional stability, earning power and legal record.
“It affects your ability to have positive relationships, both professionally and in your home life. … The more of these stack up, you’re more likely to have problems with the legal system, unsuccessful relationships, lower lifetime income,” Heinrich said.
Besides a basic acknowledgement by the government that raising children is expensive for almost anybody, advocates said the payments are an expression of faith in the judgment of struggling families.
“It’s an issue of trust. We need to trust these families to do what’s right,” said Jeffrey Hoehn, executive director of Cuidando Los Ninos, an Albuquerque charity that provides housing, child care and financial counseling for mothers transitioning from homelessness. “We find that our single moms, they know where every single penny goes. It’s just that they don’t have enough pennies.”
Hoehn said different families will have shifting needs and resources from month to month, putting the cash toward rent, utilities or even therapeutic leisure activities. In a sprawling town like Albuquerque, it’s hard to find work without a car, and Hoehn said many families his group works with are looking to the extra cash to acquire or fix a vehicle.
For Margarita Mora, the money is earmarked to help cushion her family’s transition to stability. The 36-year-old mother of three had been staying in an Albuquerque motel converted into a family shelter and would soon be getting her own subsidized apartment through Cuidando Los Ninos.
“I’ll be able to pay my utilities and basic supplies, plus gas to go look for work,” said Mora, an unemployed caregiver. “And I need to work on my debt. My credit score isn’t so great.”
The money isn’t only going to the neediest. Carissa Oswald, a stay-at-home mom in Albuquerque whose partner works with the local railroad, counts herself as middle class. But having given up her work as a caregiver to raise her 11-month-old daughter, she finds that money is frequently tight.
“Kids are expensive, right? It would let us breathe a little bit easier,” she said. “The tension is real. The stress is real.”
New Mexico state Rep. Javier Martinez, a Democrat from Albuquerque, calls the CTC a “philosophical shift from mid-20th century programs” like Medicaid and food stamps.
“And I don’t think we’re going back,” he said.
Martinez highlights the fact that CTC payments will be monthly, instead of some annual balloon payment, as a crucial distinction. The smaller monthly boosts, he said, are more likely to be incorporated into the household budget and “create certainty in a family.”
The expanded CTC expires in 2022, although President Joe Biden has proposed extending it through 2025. Whether that happens may depend on whether advocates can demonstrate a positive impact — and whether opponents, primarily Republicans, find evidence of waste.
Heinrich said he expects that opponents will have no problem gathering examples of parents spending money on things deemed unnecessary and he is braced for a revival of the Ronald Reagan-era “welfare queen” trope. The future of the program may well be riding on the outcome of the 2022 congressional elections, when Democrats will seek to retain their slim majorities in both the House and the Senate.
For now, CTC supporters are counting on enough positive examples to counter the criticisms, plus the fact that monthly cash should be popular with both Democratic and Republican families up and down the income ladder.
“There will be plenty of compelling anecdotes on either side of it,” Heinrich said. “At the same time we will have the data by then to show what a difference it has made. I want to see the data, and I suspect that in New Mexico, this will have an enormous impact.”
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan contributed to this report.
A bill that would have prohibited life sentences and mandated earlier probation eligibility for juveniles has failed to become law in New Mexico, exposing deep rifts between those seeking judicial reform and victim advocates.
Harsh sentencing sends a message to children that, “It doesn’t matter the kind of person that you become or the ways that you commit yourself to repairing the harm that you caused … [W]e don’t care,” said Denali Wilson, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and a founding member of the coalition.
At least 25 states and the District of Columbia have passed “Second Chance” legislation intended to curb harsh sentencing for juveniles.
New Mexico’s Senate Bill 247, co-sponsored this year by State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez and State Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil, both Bernalillo Democrats, would have banned life-without-parole sentences for juveniles and made them automatically eligible for parole after 15 years.
SB247 passed 28-11 in the state Senate but languished and died without a vote in the House.
NOVJM argued the law would “deny justice” by diminishing the seriousness of violent crime and re-traumatize victims who participate in parole hearings.
NOVJM President Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins said she founded the organization after her sister and brother-in-law, along with their baby, were murdered by someone under the age of 18. She worries legislative adjustments to youth sentencing could further ostracize victims and their families, who she said face emotional turmoil and unique challenges in legal proceedings due to the defendants’ age.
“Our purpose is to support and inform and advocate for the rights of the victims’ families,” Bishop-Jenkins said. “We’re not an organization built around[keeping juvenile offenders] in prison forever.”
Wilson said the New Mexico Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth will continue to press lawmakers.
“We’re now behind half the country on this issue,” said Wilson. “It should’ve happened yesterday and it didn’t, so it needs to happen tomorrow.”
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — For at least the past two years, Albuquerque lawyer Antonia Roybal-Mack says that whenever she’s representing some of the most vulnerable children in the state, she receives skimpy background information from theNew Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD).
“Every single time we get records from CYFD, they aren’t complete. They’ll send us the file and we know there’s stuff specifically missing because we get [the missing] information from other places,” says Roybal-Mack, a family law attorney since 2007. “We’re litigating with one hand tied behind our backs.”
According to a Searchlight New Mexico articlepublished last week, CYFD has also kept children’s court judges, foster youth and families, and the general public in the dark. Searchlight reports that a directive by CYFD cabinet secretary Brian Blalock forces his staff to communicate over the encrypted messaging app Signal.
The interagency text messages are automatically set to delete after 24 hours, rendering it virtually undetectable to any type of public records request. Blalock has since defended the practice, saying that Signal helps protect Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) data and other private information, and that the agency isn’t expunging any information considered public record.
In recent years, New Mexico, which has historically struggled with providing safeguards for some of the state’s most at-risk populations, has seen heartbreaking instances of child abuse, neglect, and sometimes death. It doesn’t help, according to a state lawmaker who has pushed for legislative changes, that CYFD functions as an autonomous organization. Roybal-Mack says that the state’s child protective agency can ill-afford to withhold critical information when a kid’s life may be on the line, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has explicitly subjected New Mexico’s system-involved youth and families to greater economic and social inequalities.
“You have little children that are getting abused and kids dying in state custody. At the same time, we’re not able to challenge CYFD with all of the information because they deleted half of it,” she says. “There’s no excuse for that.”
Critics say CYFD’s habit of deleting communications is problematic on several levels. Children’s law attorneys argue that it’s not only illegal, it can also lead to tragic outcomes for New Mexico’s most exposed kids. If lawyers, judges, caseworkers, and reporters aren’t able to track down potential life-saving information regarding child abuse and neglect investigations, it can lead to erroneous decisions about a child’s safety.
In addition, critics say that state lawmakers have kicked the can down the road on creating an independent body to monitor CYFD. Because the agency handles grievances from foster parents, youth in care, and even CYFD employees, they have essentially created its own in-house judges. The current setup has dissuaded system-involved youth, families, and advocates from filing complaints against CYFD due to a fear of retaliation.
The Republican Party of New Mexico, in response to the Searchlight story,urged the state attorney general’s office to investigate, adding that destroying public records is a fourth-degree felony that endangers some of the state’s most at-risk populations. New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has since announced that his office is looking into the manner.
In February 2020, the agencyannounced a robust plan of greater transparency and accountability. A few weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, the statereached a settlement in Kevin S. v. Jacobsen, a blistering lawsuit alleging that CYFD retraumatized youth in state care. Blalock credited the agency’s open government model as a reason for the legal truce.
“I think the settlement is an important symbol and manifestation of all of the things we’ve been talking a lot about in state government since 2019, which is about transparency and accountability and collaborating with outside partners in order to make important reform happen,” said Blalock in a March 2020 interview with Youth Today.
Attorneys and child-welfare advocates say that the agency’s particular use of Signal—which they say has trickled down from top-level administrations to caseworkers investigating child abuse and neglect claims—runs screaming in the opposite direction of transparency.“Nobody is saying don’t use Signal. I use Signal. The difficulty is the decision to have Signal [messages] deleted after 24 hours,” says Roybal-Mack. “It really does affect what happens to a kid and what happens in that investigation. It means that any investigation they’ve conducted or are conducting could be faulty.”
Perhaps more troubling, Roybal-Mack explains, revolves around the legal concept of spoliation, which is the intentional practice of spoiling, deleting, or altering evidence.
“CYFD lawyers go to court and say that they didn’t know about [missing evidence in a case] so it’s technically not spoliation. However, the truth is they’re doing that every single time they delete anything, whether it’s an email or a Signal message,” she says. “It’s a civil tort they’re committing.”
LEGISLATIVE REFORMS FALL ON DEAF EARS
There have been numerous attempts to create more checks and balances over CYFD.
During the 2020 New Mexico Legislature, Rep. Kelly Fajardo (R-Los Lunas) co-sponsored theChild Welfare Ombudsman Act, which would’ve established an office to independently and privately handle complaints from anyone involved with the child-welfare system. And during the 2021 regular session, Rep. Rebecca Dow (R-Truth or Consequences) tried to push through a bipartisan bill thatsought to move the child protective appeals process from under CYFD’s roof to an independent body.
Both pieces of legislation failed.
“All I want is transparency and an independent hearing officer. Thirty-six states have an independent appeals process and CYFD even opposes that,” says Dow. “[The Signal controversy] is one example of the many reasons why CYFD cannot remain an island.”
“If somebody wanted to file a complaint right now about CYFD’s conduct, you appeal within CYFD itself and the hearing officers are employees of CYFD. If there ever needs to be a final decision, it’s made by the secretary of CYFD,” adds Dow. “Children, families, foster parents, [Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA] workers, and CYFD employees have nowhere to go except to whistleblow.”
Dow says the state can’t afford these hiccups at such a tenuous stage. An August 2020New Mexico Voices for Children report shows that the pandemic may have erased gains in children’s access to economic security, housing, food, and physical and mental health services. AMarch 2021 Save the Children survey ranks New Mexico 47th in the country for its ability to deal with childhood hunger, lack of tools for remote learning, and for families trying to pay bills during the COVID-19 crisis.
Dow is bewildered: “Why would you go work for one of the hardest agencies in the state to work for, with all the most difficult situations, just to hide and redact and delete as if these problems don’t exist?”