Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham chose a lawyer from the San Francisco Bay Area – who has a background in working with homeless young people – to run New Mexico’s child-welfare agency, one of six top appointees announced Monday.
Brian Blalock, who has degrees from Harvard, Stanford and Columbia universities, is leaving his job with the nonprofit, anti-poverty group Tipping Point Community to head the Children, Youth and Families Department in New Mexico.
One of his immediate priorities will be to boost staffing in CYFD, the state agency that investigates child abuse and oversees a variety of programs for children.
Lujan Grisham estimated that parts of the department have vacancy rates as high as 25 percent. Its overall vacancy rate is 18 percent, according to the state Sunshine Portal.
“We need more social workers in CYFD,” Lujan Grisham told a news conference Monday in Albuquerque. “We have atrocious, atrocious vacancy rates.”
Overhauling the state foster care system and better identifying unsafe situations for foster children are also priorities, Lujan Grisham said.
Blalock’s appointment comes after a series of shocking child-abuse cases – including allegations last year that a 7-year-old girl was forced into prostitution. Before there was an arrest in the case, CYFD had received 25 calls alleging abuse and neglect of the girl and her two older brothers, according to documents filed by state prosecutors.
Blalock’s background includes co-founding a $100 million initiative to target chronic youth homelessness in the Bay Area, founding and directing the Youth Justice Project at Bay Area Legal Aid, and working on foster-care legislation.
In any “department that works with at-risk kids,” Blalock said Monday, “the very first priority should be to make sure that youth and children are safe.”
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office last week, said she is hoping to fill the rest of her Cabinet spots by the start of the legislative session next Tuesday.
A secretary to head the state Public Education Department is among the vacancies that haven’t been filled yet, although the governor has assigned Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, a former special education teacher with a doctorate in education, to temporarily take on the duties of the department’s Cabinet secretary.
The other appointments announced Monday are:
- Pam Coleman to head the State Personnel Office. Coleman previously worked in the White House under then-President Barack Obama, including a stint as director of the outreach and recruitment team in the presidential personnel office.
James Kenney as secretary of the Environment Department. Kenney is leaving the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked in Albuquerque as senior policy adviser for oil and gas.
- Kathy Kunkel as secretary of the Department of Health. She is a lawyer who previously served as general counsel of the department and as an assistant attorney general. Kunkel worked with Lujan Grisham, for example, when Lujan Grisham served as health secretary under then-Gov. Bill Richardson.
- Mark Shea as secretary of the Department of Public Safety. He worked for nearly 30 years in the police department for Albuquerque Public Schools, including 15 years as deputy chief. More recently, he worked as undersheriff in Valencia County, and he spent nine years in the DPS training and recruiting division.
- Nicole Comeaux as director of the Medical Assistance Division in the Human Services Department. She worked previously as a senior adviser at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Washington, D.C.
The Cabinet secretaries announced Monday are subject to confirmation by the state Senate, though they can begin work right away. They will make $128,000 a year.
Lujan Grisham said she made it clear to her appointments that they will carry a heavy workload and should be ready to cooperate with other agencies and Cabinet secretaries.
“All of these jobs are tough,” she said. “I want folks who come to us in the interview process knowing that and being clear it’s a team effort.”