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.

(7) comments

Khal Spencer

Brian Blalock needs to either come up with the legal authority he has to delete conversations and shred paper records or he should be summarily fired. The law is the law.

The first thing we were given as board members on a county commission years ago was the Open Meetings Act. Further, we were told to make sure we copied a county email address as a record copy of any emails if we wanted to keep our personal computers from being searched. A department head knows better or should know better.

zach miller

there is no record to keep, the texts delete themself. It would be like saying recycling an old phone with text messages after getting a new one is destroying records.

Prince Michael Jauregui

Deleting records or "News media" organizations willfully suppressing Truth, both, blatant crimes against We, The People.

Pot meet kettle, indeed.

Andrew Lucero

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

Lupe Molina

It might defy law and, at this point, I guess should be investigated. But people have private, unrecorded conversations all the time in the workplace, it's called talking. I know we've been inhabiting fewer spaces together recently so this isn't as glaring. But is it possible this app was just being used for the type of informal communication that might happen around the water cooler? CYFD does far from a perfect job but let's not tied them up from providing the critical services they need to perform with what seems like a politically motivated investigation. Have there been record keeping discrepancies elsewhere? Has this software choice prevented anyone from doing their jobs?

The bigger problem we need to be aware of overall is information leaks and hacks. Presbyterian's insurance arm leaked the SSNs and private info of tens of thousands of patients a few years ago. There was no article in this paper or any other in New Mexico on that issue. If we care about transparency and records safety, let's walk the walk.

zach miller

so funny this propaganda against encrypted messages under the fake veil of "but what about the children???"

You can keep records while using applications that encrypt and delete messages. what a freaking joke. How about you prove records were destroyed instead of this fake scare mongering on behalf of the NSA.

zach miller

you can still make records of conversations without source access to applications. Or I guess no one kept records before text messages existed?

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