Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, was asking the right question of Brian Blalock, secretary of New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department.
Referring to the death of 4-year-old James Dunklee Cruz of Albuquerque, allegedly beaten to death by a friend of his mother despite repeated referrals and warning signs to CYFD he shouldn’t be in his mother’s care, Matthews wanted to know: “How does that happen?”
Blalock, predictably, said he couldn’t answer because to do so would be contrary to confidentiality laws to speak about a specific case. But since James was killed and his estate and child advocates have filed a lawsuit against the state, here is the next question: Who are these confidentiality laws protecting?
There was one positive takeaway from the five-hour legislative hearing by the House Health and Human Services Committee. Blalock, a lawyer who has led CYFD since he was brought here by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham when she took office in January 2019, said the agency is working on a new transparency policy that will allow it to 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.”
While Blalock is to be commended for working on a transparency policy, this begs the question as to why the agency has stonewalled on these cases when even the head of the agency admits state law allows more disclosure.
Meanwhile, controversy continues to swirl around the agency.
Fired whistleblowers have filed complaints with the attorney general and state auditor alleging impropriety in a sole-source software system acquisition – an allegation rejected by the agency, which says the whistleblowers have no credibility.
And three civil actions have been filed in a case in which CYFD returned children to the custody of parents in Hobbs. They had been removed from parental custody after police were called to a Walmart parking lot where the couple panhandled in 90-degree weather with their four young children. Three appeared dirty, red in the face from the heat and wore no shoes. The baby had severe diaper rash and sat wrapped in a blanket in a car seat. Criminal child abuse charges were filed against the parents, and the children were placed in foster care in 2019. CYFD returned them to the parents on a trial basis, and within weeks the parents had skipped town with them. The baby ultimately was “dumped” at a North Carolina hospital after suffering a brain injury that left her permanently blind.
The complaints against CYFD in that case were brought by two whistleblower caseworkers, two guardians ad litem, both attorneys representing the children and a former foster mother who filed a counterclaim against CYFD after her foster parent license was revoked over postings she made on social media expressing concern for the children.
As for transparency, here’s an except from a court document filed in the caseworker whistleblower case. “CYFD’s efforts to conceal its misconduct went into overdrive in November of this year when the youngest of the children was abandoned by her mother at a hospital. … Those efforts have included lying to the press and ordering its employees to stonewall the Fifth Judicial District Attorney’s investigation.”
Yes, Blalock’s commitment to a new transparency policy is welcome. So are the questions from Rep. Matthews.
“CYFD’s job is to keep children safe, so if they can’t figure out a way to prevent these mistakes that are sometimes fatal, they need to revamp their system,” said Albuquerque attorney Sara Crecca, who filed the wrongful death lawsuit in the Dunklee Cruz case. “That’s their single job.”
And without answers to questions like the ones posed by Matthews, New Mexicans have no way of knowing how well the agency is doing with this difficult task. That’s important, because it’s the children who pay for the mistakes. Sometimes with their lives.
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.