It’s a litany of issues and allegations – from agency failures leading to the death of a 4-year-old boy, to systematic destruction of public records, to the firing of whistleblowers who raised concerns. Taken together, they raise the question of whether Brian Blalock is the right person to head the state’s Children Youth and Families Department.
• Going to the heart of the agency’s mission is a lawsuit filed last month in the death of James Dunklee Cruz, a 4-year-old Albuquerque boy left in his mother’s care despite repeated abuse and neglect referrals. He died on Dec. 10, 2019, minutes after arriving at University of New Mexico Hospital with multiple injuries to his head and chest. The friend his mother left him with is charged with felony first-degree child abuse resulting in death. Albuquerque attorney Sara Crecca says James’ death was “preventable in that this case was on (CYFD) radar in so many directions.”
• Blalock and CYFD also were hit with criticism from open government groups and child advocates for use of an app in which communications between staffers were being systematically deleted. The attorney general called it “highly concerning,” the Foundation for Open Government likened it to shredding public documents and the director of Pegasus Legal Services for Children said the agency needed access to all the information and “to have the state routinely deleting any sort of communication is outrageous.”
• Then, two high-ranking CYFD employees were fired after one of them raised concerns about use of the message-disappearing app. Cliff Gilmore, who served 20 years in the Marine Corps where he taught curriculum used to certify public affairs officers, and who holds a Ph.D. in organization and management, was the agency’s public information officer. He wrote to Blalock on April 22 recommending use of the app “be halted immediately.” The agency did ditch the app shortly after – although it is using a substitute that also has systematic deletion capability – and Gilmore was fired May 6. Also fired was his wife, hired in December to lead CYFD’s newly-formed office of children’s rights.
Gilmore, in an op-ed in Sunday’s Journal, presented what he considers problems under Blalock including a tendency to seek “quick win” opportunities rather than strategic outcomes and lack of a sound plan that would “help keep CYFD on track toward measurable improvement in the lives of children who experience abuse and neglect.”
Blalock says the agency was using the app to ensure confidentiality as employees worked remotely during COVID and it wasn’t deleting anything the Inspection of Public Records Act would require the agency to keep. That’s a dubious claim given some of the examples of chats, including problems with private contractors and coordination during the 2021 legislative session. And even if the law allows deletion of “transitory” communications – what do you want for lunch? – systematic deletion deprives advocates and the public a chance to review and request what they consider substantive communications regarding public business.
CYFD is an agency with an incredibly difficult task and a troubled history. But recent events demand a public accounting and explanation. As a candidate, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham promised changes at CYFD and said she was uniquely qualified to make them. One of her first moves was to appoint Blalock. The public, along with those CYFD is expected to protect and nurture, need her to explain why Blalock has her vote of confidence – or why he needs to go.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.