The routine deletion of some forms of communication in the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department needs to stop.
It’s one thing to make sure communications are secure — the privacy of children and families must be protected — and another to remove conversations from the public record.
As reported by Searchlight New Mexico, CYFD leaders have directed staff to use Signal, a secure communications app, and have set chats to delete automatically. Once deleted, these conversations are nearly unrecoverable. That means attorneys, reporters or any members of the public will be unable to access certain public records.
And, yes, these are public records.
New Mexico’s open-records law defines public records as any “that are used, created, received, maintained or held by or on behalf of any public body and relate to public business.” There’s no distinction between paper, email, text and, now, chat conversations.
CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock disagrees the use of Signal is a problem — he says the records aren’t subject to the Inspection of Public Records Act. The app was adopted near the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, part of a technology update for the department and an attempt to make communications more secure. We have no issues with technology upgrades or security. But routinely deleting information that should remain available to the public is bad policy. More seriously, improper destruction of public records is a fourth-degree felony.
Here’s why these records matter:
The Children, Youth and Families Department is a sprawling agency that deals with the well-being of children and families in the state, including running the foster care system. It is no exaggeration to point out New Mexico’s foster care system has seen its share of troubles, including the deaths of children in the care of the state.
Those incidents, when they occur, become the subjects of investigations — whether by reporters, attorneys or family members who want to know the facts. Keeping a complete record of conversations about a particular case, no matter how the information was exchanged, is essential.
Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, compared deleting communications between state employees to routinely shredding official documents at the end of each day.
Unfortunately, Blalock said the department also shreds paper communications and deletes conversations on other types of software his employees use. There’s not enough space to store all the records. What’s more, he says department lawyers have vetted how employees are using the different platforms. In other words, there’s nothing to see here.
Let’s see what Attorney General Hector Balderas says. Republicans want an investigation into CYFD practices in handling public records. They want Balderas and State Auditor Brian Colón to investigate what seem to be routine practices in the agency. That’s a reasonable request and the right first step.
The public needs to know that essential records are being maintained, not destroyed. That assurance has to come from outside the department, and the Attorney General’s Office is the best agency to make sure the law is being followed. Balderas has said he is reviewing the matter.
Beyond the AG, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham might want to give Blalock a call — but don’t use the Signal app — and get to the bottom of his record-keeping procedures. She’s his boss and could order procedures changed to comply with state law.
The people of New Mexico deserve public records that are complete, maintained and available when we need to get to the bottom of what happened in a particular case. Right now, that does not seem to be what CYFD is delivering.