Staff of the Legislative Finance Committee found child abuse deaths in New Mexico more than doubled in fiscal year 2020 from the previous year and the state has the second-highest rate of repeated child maltreatment in the nation.

The state Children, Youth and Families Department also has struggled with staff vacancies and high turnover in key leadership positions, and agency oversight needs improvement, Legislative Finance Committee Director David Abbey wrote in a memo last week to several state lawmakers.

The legislative review of CYFD data came after lawmakers on the committee raised concerns the agency’s former Cabinet secretary, Brian Blalock, had provided inaccurate statistics at a July hearing. According to Abbey’s memo, Blalock reported child maltreatment rates were below national averages, but the committee’s staff found rates that soared to nearly twice the U.S. rates between 2015 and 2019, when the state ranked 6th highest in the nation. National data for fiscal years 2020 and 2021, when the state’s rates dipped during the coronavirus pandemic, are not yet available. But the memo cited a likely decline in national numbers as well due to a lack of reporting as children remained isolated in their homes.

Blalock resigned in August amid a cloud of controversy centered on his department’s use of an encrypted messaging app called Signal.

He also is accused in a whistleblower lawsuit of firing and reprimanding employees who raised questions and concerns about a no-bid computer system contract.

However, he said his reason for leaving was to support his wife as she pursues a new job opportunity in California. He will be replaced next week by former state Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil.

Abbey’s Sept. 23 memo, which recommends several “next steps” for the department to improve the issues, was distributed to state lawmakers on the interim Courts, Correction and Justice Committee during a hearing Tuesday on a recommendation to create a ombudsman position or office within the child welfare agency.

Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, co-chairman of the committee, called Abbey’s memo on CYFD “shocking and outrageous.”

“The fact that the last secretary went and reported the numbers suggesting that we were below the national average, when in fact we were at the top, second only to New York, either suggests to me that we were misled, badly, or the secretary was so clueless about the job he was doing that he had no idea he was failing,” Cervantes said.

CYFD Deputy Secretary Terry Locke did not respond to questions Tuesday on the memo or the recommendations from the Legislative Finance Committee’s staff.

The Governor’s Office also did not respond to requests for comment.

CYFD spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst said in a statement late Tuesday, “The Children, Youth and Families Department, under new leadership, will approach this issue and all of its work to protect and improve child wellbeing with a commitment to transparency, collaboration and accountability.”

While the recent spike in child abuse deaths — to 23 in fiscal year 2020 from 11 in 2019 — and high rates of child maltreatment were among the most alarming aspects of Abbey’s memo, it also cited a troubling lack of public reporting on child welfare data and conflicts of interest in some offices tasked with oversight.

“There are numerous oversight mechanisms external to CYFD but [these] are either inadequate or provide dated information to the public,” the memo stated. “External to CYFD at the state level, a number of oversight mechanisms exist. CYFD participates in existing child fatality review panels including the Child Fatality Review Board (CFRB) and the Maternal Mortality Review (MMR). However, reports to the public from these panels have been lacking with the CFRB not having released a report since 2015.”

The Child Fatality Review Board plans to release its first report in six years on the causes of child deaths in the state before the end of 2021, the memo added.

The memo noted the Children, Youth and Families Department has an inspector general tasked with a broad range of oversight, including staff misconduct, but the Inspector General’s Office does not publicize its work, has a 33 percent vacancy rate and “possesses an inherent conflict of interest” because it falls under the Cabinet secretary.

The agency has a new Office of Children’s Rights, the memo said, but its first director has been dismissed.

Abbey’s memo lists several recommendations for the agency, including the following:

  • Identify a permanent protective services director to replace an acting director — or promote the acting director to the permanent position.
  • Implement research-based hiring practices, including using information from exit surveys to identify issues affecting worker retention.
  • Continue with a pilot of “differential response” to child welfare issues — which involves assessing families, identifying needs and finding support through community services — and provide a plan for expansion.
  • Incorporate federal child maltreatment death reporting into public reporting documents to increase transparency.
  • Place a heavier focus on evidence-based prevention and early intervention resources.

Lawmakers on the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee also discussed the possibility of an ombudsman office to increase oversight of the agency. At least 22 states have such an office, Abbey’s memo stated, and legislation has been introduced in New Mexico — most recently in 2020 — to establish one for CYFD.

Committee Co-Chairwoman Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, said she hopes to assemble a task force to research the option or look for other ways to improve oversight of CYFD.

“We absolutely need an ombudsman,” said Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas. “I’ve had employees tell me they filed complaints against their supervisors, and the person who’s doing the investigation is their supervisor.

“We have some amazing people at CYFD,” she added, “but let’s be honest — we also have some people who should not be there, and we have no way of knowing who those people are.”

(8) comments

Kenneth Monk

Speaking from the standpoint of a foster parent and C.A.S.A. volunteer, I would like very much to see an ombudsman. It will only work if it actually has teeth. C.A.S.A. already has the ability to stay in touch with everyone involved in their assigned case and the ability to report their findings to the judge over the case. But as so eloquently stated by one judge over a case "I am not required to read the C.A.S.A. report." All the oversight in the world is worthless unless it has some power to hold everyone responsible for vulnerable children's welfare accountable.

Francisco Carbajal

The Child Fatality Review Board (CFRB) is one of the most important functions in state government relating to finding the cause and manner of a child's death. However, the lack of accountability and responsibility for filing those badly needed vacancies (i.e., board or commission members) from the Office of the Governor's Boards and Commission is not being addressed by Governor MLG, period! Lastly, we know that an issue of "unclaimed" children that have died and taken to the Office of Medical Death Investigations in Albuquerque (OMI) have occurred over the years. The NM Children, Youth and Families Department has no policy or directives on how to handle an "unclaimed" child in their custody. Why is occurring and who is watching over our "unclaimed" children that have died due to child neglect and abuse from family members regardless of social-economic, racial or national origins, etc.? Where do they go after an autopsy has been completed at the OMI facility in NM? Who takes care of our dead "unclaimed" children under the age of eighteen years old while in custody of the CYFD? What is Governor MLG doing about it?

Karen Wine

Here is a story from the other side of the issue. I spent my first 5 years of life in the foster care system in Massachusetts. In that time I witness another child in care killed in a potty training incident, I was beaten so badly at 3 years old that I spent 3 1/2 months in the hospital. I wouldn’t or couldn’t walk or talk afterwards and the plan was to institutionalize me. While I was waiting to be institutionalized I was placed in a home with a woman and her family who drew me out of my depression, worked with me to walk and talk and function again. Foster parents are a bizarre combination of Good and Evil people. Some are in it purely for the money some have good intentions but are completely unstable and I’ll equipped to take on the task and others are amazing, giving, wonderful people who have a genuine desire to provide a safe and loving home.

I was, quite fortunately, adopted at 5 and made it out of the system. I am literally thankful every day of my life. The system is terrifying and full of uncertainty for a child.

I spent 5 years(3 as the chair) on a non-profit board here in New Mexico that worked specifically to place “the most difficult to place” in permanent/adoptive homes. We pumped millions of dollars over the years into this effort in New Mexico and operated 7 different states and I can say that NM and CYFD were absolutely the most difficult to work with! To the point that we finally pulled out of NM and I remained on the National Board. It’s so much easier to help people who want to be helped.

I love New Mexico for its weather, culture, food… but, in my opinion, it’s a state that can’t get out of its own way. It needs to start looking at States that are making progress in education and child welfare and many other areas and say hmmm, let’s take a look at what they are doing right. Maybe we can replicate it here, instead of we’re at the bottom but we know we’re doing a great job let’s keep doing what we’re doing. That is the definition of insanity, after all.

Jennifer Day

CYFD is severely understaffed, especially for social workers. They are stressed out almost all the time, leading to very high turnover. They have extremely stressful jobs and often crushing caseloads. As I see it, the first steps to improve the situation need to be to raise pay (for staff retention and recruitment purposes) and to get more social workers in place so workers can have reasonable caseloads. We can't give people a superhuman number of cases and then expect satisfactory results. An ombudsman is also badly needed so foster parent's voices can be more effectively heard within the system. We can't talk seriously about improving the situation if we're not willing to put our money where our mouths are. New Mexico's most vulnerable children are depending on us.

Chris Mechels

This CYFD failure is part of the overall failure of the Governor. Her "oversight" of her Cabinet just "isn't". Look to her staff, which is pathetic, mostly those who helped her to get elected, and hopefully will help her to get re-elected. As for their capacity to "govern", no sign of that. But then, MLG shows not sign of management ability either. All PR, as always with her. Still "running through walls" for us, as her silly commercials had it. Mostly "running her mouth", such a loud mouth for such a tiny person. We must be silly also, to have elected her... But then the Democrats could elect a Dead Dog in New Mexico, and have.

Cathryn Delude

Yes, outrageous! Child welfare should be at the top of our state and local agendas.

Cheryl Odom

I've lived in New Mexico for over forty years, and as far back as I can remember, CYFD has had problems. It's pretty outrageous, because children are so vulnerable and their needs aren't being met. Thanks for this article, Ms. Troxler. I'm sharing it.

Ann Maes

My god this is outrageous! How has this been hidden for so long??!!

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