An Española teen who endured three months of sexual abuse by a foster parent in 2014 has filed state and federal lawsuits against New Mexico’s child welfare agency, several of its employees and a state-contracted behavioral health firm, saying they knowingly placed him in the care of a man who was accused more than a year earlier of sexually assaulting foster children.
The suits, filed this week in U.S. District Court in Albuquerque and the state’s First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe, come after Manuel Preciado, a Tucumcari man in his mid-60s, pleaded no contest in March to one count of criminal sexual contact of a minor and six counts of raping a minor. His convictions were for two cases involving foster teens in his care.
Preciado was contracted to provide high-level treatment foster care, which offers counseling services to some of the state’s most vulnerable youth in state custody. Instead, he preyed on boys, according to the lawsuits.
They detail a chilling series of crimes in which Preciado, who was on the boys’ case management teams, would threaten to lengthen their time in his custody if they spoke out about the sexual abuse or refused to comply with his demands.
“They know this guy is sitting on their case management team, and they know he can make life hard with him,” said Santa Fe attorney Richard Rosenstock, who filed the lawsuits Tuesday on behalf of his client, who was 15 when the abuse began.
But some boys reported abuse to behavioral health care workers at the state-contracted Turquoise Health and Wellness. Their allegations were either dismissed or inadequately investigated, the suits say. And even after some boys were removed from Preciado’s home, the now-defunct behavioral health firm continued to place other children in his care, allowing the abuse to continue, the suits say.
“I think they had no professional judgment whatsoever,” a frustrated Rosenstock said in an interview Wednesday. “… You’re dealing with kids here.”
A spokeswoman for the Children, Youth and Families Department said in an email Wednesday that Preciado was not licensed by the agency to provide foster care. Instead, the agency contracted with Turquoise Health and Wellness to oversee the care, the email said.
“I can confirm that the staff named in the lawsuit still work for CYFD in our Juvenile Justice Division,” spokeswoman May Jaramillo said. But, she said, the division doesn’t place youth in treatment foster care. “As part of probation, a child may be either court ordered or we may recommend that a juvenile complete treatment foster care. The parent or guardian would have to place the child into TFC, not CYFD.”
The boys’ abuse, Rosenstock said, was a tragic part of the aftermath of Gov. Susana Martinez’s controversial decision in 2013 to shake up the state’s behavioral health services for low-income residents. The Martinez administration, claiming it had evidence of Medicare fraud, halted payments to 15 New Mexico firms and brought in Arizona companies to replace them.
Many of the New Mexico companies were forced to shut down, though none was ever charged with Medicare fraud. Most of the Arizona firms have since left New Mexico, creating further strain on people struggling with addictions and other mental health issues.
Turquoise Health and Wellness, one of those firms, was already showing signs of financial trouble by late 2013, Rosenstock said, and had no systems in place to ensure its young clients in the state’s foster program were in safe care.
“Defendant Turquoise Health was essentially a fly-by-night operation and a sham corporation which lacked the financial and professional capacity to adequately and responsibly investigate treatment foster care homes prior [to] placement of treatment foster care children who have been taken from their homes by the State and/or to adequately supervise such foster homes after placement,” the federal lawsuit says.
Preciado is named as a defendant in the federal suit, along with Turquoise Health and Wellness, its Arizona-based parent company, Lifewell Behavioral Wellness, and several individual workers of the state agency and the health firms.
Rosenstock said a separate civil suit against the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department was filed in state District Court.
Officials from Lifewell did not return a phone call seeking comment on the case.
According to court records, Preciado was criminally charged in November 2014, about a month after Rosenstock’s client, who was referred to treatment foster care after spending time in a juvenile detention center, and his mother reported the sexual abuse to police. Preciado was arrested again in January 2015, when another teen came forward with allegations.
Under Preciado’s plea deal, several counts against him were dropped, including charges of kidnapping and false imprisonment. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for October, according to court documents. In the meantime, he is out of jail on bond.
The second teen victim also has filed a lawsuit in the state District Court in Santa Fe against Preciado, the state Children, Youth and Families Department, and several behavioral health agencies.
According to the lawsuits, that teen was so severely abused by Preciado that he needed to seek medical care for injuries to his genitals.
“Defendant Preciado often plied the child with liquor and/or drugs,” Rosenstock’s federal suit says, “and then sodomized him over a period of almost six months in numerous, different ways.”
Contact Cynthia Miller at 505-986-3095 or firstname.lastname@example.org.