Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
It’s a tragic case that has put New Mexico’s child welfare system on trial.
On a summer day two years ago, a police officer in Hobbs was called to the scene of a Walmart parking lot, where a couple were panhandling in 90-degree weather with their four young children. Three of the children appeared dirty, red in the face from the heat and wore no shoes. The youngest, an infant with severe diaper rash, sat wrapped in a blanket in a car seat.
“NEED FORMULA, FOOD, AND GAS MONEY,” said a sign held by a man later identified as their father, Andrei Ducila, a Romanian national.
The June 3, 2019, encounter led to criminal child abuse charges against the parents, and prompted the state Children, Youth and Families Department to place the children – ages 3 weeks to 4 years old – in foster care and seek legal custody.
But in April 2020, state child protective services workers returned the children to the parents allegedly on a trial basis while CYFD still retained legal custody. Within weeks, the parents had skipped town with the children on a cross-country trek. The baby was “dumped” at a North Carolina hospital after suffering a brain injury that left her permanently blind. The rest of the family moved on to Houston where the parents were arrested last November.
Today, the mother, Luiza Badea, 23, also from Romania, is in the Lea County Detention Center awaiting a ruling on whether she is competent to stand trial on New Mexico child abuse charges. Her husband, Ducila, 26, is being held in a Charleston, North Carolina, jail on charges of first-degree intentional child abuse related to the baby’s fractured skull, burns and other injuries, court records show.
The children are back in foster care in New Mexico.
But CYFD is fighting three civil actions alleging the agency negligently returned the children to their biological parents and covered up its mistakes. CYFD attorneys deny the allegations.
The agency is alleged to have prevented police from issuing an Amber Alert by insisting the children weren’t in danger and initially blocked the 5th Judicial District Attorney from pressing criminal charges of custodial interference against the parents.
CYFD is also accused of attempting to silence and retaliate against a foster mother and two CYFD caseworkers who criticized the agency’s actions. One of the two caseworkers was removed from the case and no longer works for the agency.
All three describe themselves as whistleblowers.
Last November, CYFD employee Kelly Mazy and former employee Ivy Woodward were the first to file suit against the agency. A month later, two guardians ad litem, both attorneys, filed a lawsuit representing the four children that is now in federal court.
In the third case, former foster mother, Jill Jones, filed a counterclaim against CYFD alleging her foster parent license was revoked to punish her for exposing illegal conduct by CYFD that led to the baby’s permanent injuries.
CYFD had sued her last October for allegedly disclosing confidential information about the case – allegations she denies. Jones contends she feared for the safety of the children, two of whom she had cared for, when she posted on social media about their disappearance in 2020.
CYFD attorneys in court records say the allegations are “one-sided and disputed.”
But the full story may never become public because CYFD has sought protective orders sealing portions of the lawsuits related to its actions, citing state and federal confidentiality laws involving abuse and neglect proceedings. CYFD maintains the family by law is entitled to its privacy.
CYFD successfully petitioned a Lea County district judge last year to seal the criminal child abuse complaint that Hobbs police filed against the couple in June 2019.
At CYFD’s request, the whistleblower complaint filed by the caseworkers is sealed and their motion objecting to the sealing is heavily redacted.
Their attorney, Benjamin Gubernick of Phoenix, argued that CYFD betrayed “the public trust” and the public has a right to know what happened.
‘CYFD’s job: Keep kids safe’
The practice of returning children to homes where neglect or abuse has been documented, or failing to remove them from unfit biological parents, has been at the heart of other lawsuits alleging malfeasance by CYFD.
“CYFD’s job is to keep children safe, so if they can’t figure out a way to have internal controls to prevent these mistakes that are sometimes fatal, they need to revamp their system,” Albuquerque attorney Sara Crecca said last week. “That’s their single job.”
Crecca is one of the attorneys who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against CYFD in May following the beating death of a 4-year-old Albuquerque boy in 2019 whose family had been on the agency’s radar for years. A roommate of the boy’s mother has been charged in the death.
A CYFD spokesman told the Journal on Friday that the agency, guided by state law, tries to “preserve the unity of families whenever possible.”
“CYFD serves as both a safety net for endangered children and a support system to provide parents with the tools they need to safely care for their offspring,” said agency spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst in an email.
“Our agency would never intentionally reunite children with their families until it is safe to do so, and firmly believes that being poor is not a crime nor a reason in and of itself to necessitate child separation.”
In the case involving the Romanian couple, police reports and court documents show:
A Hobbs police officer on June 3, 2019, filed four felony counts of abuse of a child against the couple after learning that despite Ducila’s claims in broken English that the family had no money, no food and needed help with baby formula, the couple did have financial resources.
CYFD was called, and the children, ages 4, 3, 1 and the infant, were examined at a medical clinic where the three oldest were diagnosed with tooth decay. The 3-week-old had severe diaper rash, dehydration and thrush in the mouth. The 1-year-old also had a urinary tract infection.
“… It was determined (Andrei) and Luiza negligently disregarded the health, well-being and safety of the children by not providing housing or medical treatment for their children when they had the means to do so,” the police officer wrote.
CYFD took the children into custody. And in the months that followed, the agency asked a state district judge to terminate their parental rights.
But court records show the agency also was helping the couple with a parenting plan for possible reunification and allowed supervised visits under the watch of a CYFD caseworker.
A state district judge ultimately gave CYFD custody of the children on March 16, 2020. Court records show by the end of April CYFD placed them back with their parents, who were still facing criminal charges.
The lawsuit filed on behalf of the four children alleges CYFD returned them for a trial home visit “having actual knowledge that turning physical custody to the parents would create substantial risk to the children’s health, safety and well-being.”
CYFD caseworker at the time, Woodward, “documented the parents’ manifest unfitness in reports submitted to her superiors at CYFD. And during one supervised visit, one of the parents offered Woodward a cash bribe to look the other way while they absconded with the children. She refused and reported the incident to her superiors at CYFD,” according to the lawsuit.
On May 2, 2020, a CYFD caseworker contacted police to report that she couldn’t locate the family when she tried to make a home visit to their apartment in Hobbs. And they weren’t answering the phone.
Hobbs police subsequently filed additional charges of custodial interference against the parents. But no Amber Alert was issued, the lawsuits allege.
“This case arises because CYFD, a public agency that purports to protect children, did exactly the opposite and then tried to cover it up … In a cynical effort to keep its workload down, CYFD decided to return four child abuse victims to their manifestly unfit parents,” the caseworkers’ lawsuit says.
As part of that “scheme,” the lawsuit alleges, “CYFD ordered caseworker Woodward to lie in court and conceal the parents’ identities from law enforcement. Woodward refused to cooperate because she knew the children would be endangered. But CYFD did not care. To the contrary, CYFD’s stated hope was that the family would disappear.”
Amber Alert not issued
The lawsuits also claim CYFD prevented the Hobbs Police Department from issuing an Amber Alert, insisting the children weren’t in danger.
CYFD also is alleged to have “thwarted” efforts to locate the family by refusing to report the children missing and withheld documents from Hobbs Police investigators that could have helped locate the children, the caseworkers’ lawsuit says.
Staff were ordered not to discuss the matter with anyone, the lawsuit alleges, and CYFD “retaliated against Mazy and Woodward for reporting the agency’s mishandling of the case.”
The effort to conceal its misconduct “went into overdrive” in November 2020, their whistleblower lawsuit alleges, when the youngest child was “abandoned by her mother … at a hospital” in North Carolina. The baby’s injuries are alleged to have been inflicted between Sept. 1, 2020, and Oct. 20, 2020.
After the parents returned to face charges in New Mexico, state District Judge Mark Sanchez of Lovington ordered them held without bond, “noting the danger is especially acute as regards the children, who are in or have been in very poor condition as a result of the parents’ care.”
In responding to the lawsuits, CYFD attorneys revealed the children’s medical conditions included tuberculosis and one child had meningitis.
Meanwhile, the children’s father, Ducila faces a hearing in North Carolina next month on the felony charge related to the severe injuries to the baby. He pleaded guilty in March to the New Mexico charges of abuse of a child and custodial interference.
Sanchez suspended prison sentences of three years and 18 months he imposed in the cases. And Ducila was transported to North Carolina to face the more serious child abuse charge.
B.W. Stone, an Albuquerque attorney representing the mother, Badea, declined to comment for this story.
But court records show he “hasn’t been able to effectively speak with the defendant despite the use of an interpreter,” says an order by state District Judge William Shoobridge of Lovington. The judge in May agreed to an evaluation of her competency to stand trial.
Badea, meanwhile, is asking for court permission to visit her children by video or in-person under CYFD supervision, but the judge hadn’t ruled as of Friday.