New head of New Mexico child welfare department pledges to ‘listen and learn’ in face of challenges

By Maura Fox

When former New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil retired from the bench in June, she didn’t know what was next, but one thing was certain: She wanted to pivot from presiding over cases of vulnerable communities to actively advocating for them. 

In October, just four months later, she signed on as the secretary of the state’s Children, Youth, and Families Department (CYFD). 

“I knew that I was ready to jump back into public service,” Vigil says of her decision to lead the agency of 1,700 employees, which has suffered a rocky year. “Some things can’t wait.” 

Vigil replaced former cabinet secretary Brian Blalock, who stepped down from the position in August amid controversy, including overseeing the department’s use of the encrypted messaging app Signal and entering into a no-bid computer system contract (a move CYFD reversed in October). 

Two former employees filed a whistleblower complaint over the summer alleging they were retaliated against for raising concerns.

The department is also being sued for its handling of a case that returned four children to allegedly abusive parents.  

Earlier this year, CYFD was issued a set of recommendations from the state’s Legislative Finance Committee to improve how it reports child abuse data and address the department’s high staff turnover rate.

Transparency, collaboration and accountability

From the blue couch in her office, located in downtown Santa Fe, Vigil comes across as soft-spoken and sober in the face of her department’s many challenges. She said her leadership philosophy is rooted in three tenets: Transparency, collaboration and accountability. 

“My goal is to ensure that if a family has contact with CYFD, they are better off for it,” Vigil says.

New Mexico child welfare advocates and attorneys are hopeful that Vigil is up to the challenge. Colleagues and observers describe her as a thoughtful listener who has worked diligently on behalf of kids in the state. 

Ezra Spitzer, executive director of the New Mexico Child Advocacy Networks, believes that Vigil was a wise choice for the position given her experience and position of respect in the community. 

He adds, however, that she and the department will be most successful if they commit to community engagement.

“It’s a very tough job, and one person cannot change all the things that need to change,” Spitzer says. “She is going to need a team of very skilled and talented people around her and partnership from the community.” 

Like any cabinet secretary, Vigil says she will make sure her goals for the department align with those of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration.

State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a former social worker and the vice chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, questions how Vigil will navigate the often slow-turning wheels of bureaucracy.  

New Mexico child welfare: Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino
State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino (Courtesy of New Mexico State Government)

“She’s seen the problems; she knows what she would like to get done,” says Ortiz y Pino, a Democrat representing Albuquerque. “How do you translate that into moving the bureaucratic machinery in a way that actually produces the outcomes you want?”

Vigil, who has spent much of her career working on children’s issues, says she knows this work takes “endurance and tenacity.” 

Born and raised in New Mexico, Vigil’s family moved to Santa Fe when she was in the third grade. She received an undergraduate degree in accounting from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces before attending the University of New Mexico School of Law in Albuquerque. 

Though Vigil says she has always been passionate about serving vulnerable communities, it wasn’t until she began working at a firm in Las Cruces in 1988 that she found her calling for children’s issues. Vigil was assigned to represent a mother who was seeking custody of her two sons after a spurned ex-husband accused her of mistreating the children.

“Here was a mother who was being pulled into a system as a result of an angry former spouse,” Vigil recalls. “That really changed the way I saw the child welfare system in New Mexico. I became very interested in trying to make it better for kids and people like her.”

After opening her own law practice in Santa Fe, she served on the New Mexico First Judicial District Court for 12 years and presided over the Children’s Court. While there, she played a key role in the creation of the juvenile justice boards in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, and Los Alamos. The boards bring together local leaders to develop programs for youth at risk of entering the juvenile justice system. 

In 2012, Vigil was elected to the New Mexico Supreme Court, where she served for nine years. 

Despite her qualifications and experience in family law and child welfare, Vigil says that she is still learning how the department works from within, especially when it comes to its internal challenges.

Trust through communication

In May, two CYFD employees were fired in what they allege was an act of retaliation for raising concerns about the department. Later in July, at least half a dozen other former employees said that they were reprimanded or fired for voicing worries about the department’s computer system upgrade, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.  

Vigil says she hopes to build trust through regular communication with staff.

“I have spent the last six weeks attending meetings and listening to people who know much more about the work of the department than I,” Vigil says. “As time goes on, I’ll become more knowledgeable about internal operations, but at least for the future, I will spend a lot of time listening and learning.”

Vigil has already begun working on some key issues. One priority, she says, is addressing the settlement reached in the case of Kevin S. v. Jacobsen, a lawsuit alleging that CYFD retraumatized youth in its care

Under the settlement, the state agreed to adopt several new practices to address children’s well-being in the system, but the implementation plan has been slow, says Bette Fleishman, an attorney with Pegasus Legal Services for Children, one of the firms monitoring its progress. 

“We know it’s going to take years, and the best people should be working on it and putting in the resources to make it happen,” Fleishman says, adding that she’s optimistic about their goals under Vigil, who has already met with the implementation teams. 

In order to fully carry out the implementation plan, Vigil says she hopes to build up a robust workforce at CYFD and is asking the legislature for an increase in the department’s base budget to fund positions in the Protective and Behavioral Health services divisions.  

“A priority for me is to ensure that we have adequate staffing across New Mexico for this work,” Vigil says. “I see huge challenges for the department, but it doesn’t take away from the unwavering commitment and dedication that I’ve seen in thousands of employees who do this work day in and day out.”

This story originally published Dec. 21, 2021, on Youth Today.

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