By Steve Jansen
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 practice harmed 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 mom countersued 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 the National 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.
The Gilmores say they have gone through emotional ups and downs since their May 6 termination, but that they plan to continue working in child welfare in the state, which recently ranked 49th in overall child well-being.
“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.”
This story originally published June 28, 2021, on Youth Today.