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Lawmakers question CYFD chief on child abuse fatalities, agency’s public reports

Brian Blalock speaks after being nominated to serve as secretary of Children, Youth and Families Department in 2019. (Russell Contreras/Associated Press)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The head of New Mexico’s child welfare agency faced blunt questions about child abuse fatalities Friday during a five-hour legislative hearing at the Capitol.

Brian Blalock, secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department, defended the agency’s work and said he couldn’t address specific cases Friday as lawmakers questioned him and top staff members.

But the department, Blalock said, is crafting a policy outlining how it can be more forthcoming with the public while maintaining compliance with confidentiality laws.

“Under New Mexico state law,” he said, “we could be doing a much better job of being transparent when child abuse fatalities occur.”

Blalock, a lawyer who has led CYFD since 2019, told lawmakers his agency rigorously evaluates its decision-making following a death and is working on a policy that would result in public reports.

His comments came after members of the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee asked him a host of questions about New Mexico’s child welfare system, which has faced transparency questions for its past use of an auto-deleting messaging app.

Much of Friday’s hearing focused on whether New Mexico is adequately protecting children from abuse.

Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, asked Blalock about the death of James Dunklee Cruz, a 4-year-old boy beaten in 2019, allegedly by a friend of his mother.

A lawsuit filed this year accused CYFD of failing to protect the boy as it tried to keep him with his mom despite allegations of abuse and neglect.

“How does that happen?” Matthews asked Blalock.

Blalock said it would be contrary to confidentiality laws for him to speak about an individual case.

But generally, he said, CYFD staff members take action based on the information they have at the time and that some tragedies cannot be anticipated given what’s known beforehand. Regardless, Blalock said, the agency conducts rigorous reviews of its decision-making and can do a better job sharing information with the public.

“We have a draft policy we’re working on,” Blalock said. “I’m hoping it gets us at least part of the way there.”

An agency review of data going back to 2015, he said, shows firearms, suicide and unsafe sleeping practices for infants are recurring trends among the deaths of young people who have been involved in the child welfare system.

Blalock also said research shows children do best when living with a parent – in combination with appropriate support services – or with a relative, such as a grandma.

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