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.”