Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico’s long-troubled Children, Youth and Families Department is getting a leadership shake-up, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Tuesday that former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Vigil will take over the agency in October.
She will replace current CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock, who has faced questions about departmentwide use of a secure text messaging app criticized by open records advocates, a lawsuit filed under the Whistleblower Protection Act, alleged state procurement code violations and the department’s handling of several high-profile child abuse cases – including one that ended in a child’s death.
Lujan Grisham said Blalock is stepping down to support his wife’s pursuit of new job opportunities in California but also acknowledged concern about “administrative mishaps” during his tenure.
At one point during Tuesday’s news conference at the Governor’s Office, she described Blalock’s pending departure as a “mutually agreed-upon decision.”
But the Democratic governor also touted recent improvements made by CYFD in lowering staff vacancy rates and reducing average times for child abuse investigations to be completed.
“This department is making incredible strides,” Lujan Grisham said, adding that she believes the agency’s procurement code compliance will ultimately be upheld after a state investigation.
However, ensuring the well-being of New Mexico children has long proved to be a challenge in a state with high poverty and drug overdose rates.
Vigil, 62, whose resignation from the New Mexico Supreme Court was effective June 30, said she understands the inherent difficulties associated with the Children, Youth and Families Department, an agency with more than 1,000 full-time employees and an annual state budget of roughly $170 million.
“This is a huge responsibility that I am prepared to undertake,” Vigil said Tuesday.
She touted her past legal work and her personal experience attending a Catholic boarding school in Santa Fe after her mother died at a young age as events that have prepared her for the challenge of running the state agency.
“The health and well-being of our children is critical to our future,” said Vigil, who also presided over state Children’s Court for more than 10 years and helped create juvenile justice boards in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties.
Blalock, who is on vacation and did not attend Tuesday’s news conference, was appointed by the governor as CYFD secretary shortly after she took office in January 2019. He had previously been working with a nonprofit group that helps homeless young people in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The leadership change at CYFD comes with Lujan Grisham seeking election to a second four-year term in 2022 and is likely to renew scrutiny of the turnover within the her Cabinet.
Although some turnover in a governor’s tenure is not unusual, at least 10 agency heads have either been fired or have left since Lujan Grisham took office two-plus years ago.
During Tuesday’s news conference, Lujan Grisham said an overhaul of the state’s behavioral health system by her predecessor, Republican Susana Martinez, contributed to the state’s challenges facing CYFD, but said she has high standards for Cabinet secretaries in her administration.
Blalock, for his part, had faced blunt questions from lawmakers during recent committee hearings about child abuse fatalities and other issues.
Specifically, the agency is facing a lawsuit for allegedly failing to protect James Dunklee Cruz, a 4-year-old boy beaten to death in 2019, allegedly by a friend of his mother’s. The lawsuit alleges CYFD tried to keep him with his mother despite allegations of abuse and neglect.
Other lawsuits surround the case of a Romanian couple whose four children – ages 4 to an infant – were taken into CYFD custody in Hobbs after the parents were charged with child abuse. CYFD returned the children to the parents on a temporary basis, but the parents left the state. Soon after, the infant was abandoned at a North Carolina hospital with a fractured skull and brain damage and was blind. The lawsuits claimed CYFD retaliated against a foster parent and two caseworkers who tried to sound the alarm about the parents.
Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Los Lunas, who has sponsored legislation focused at foster families, said the Children, Youth and Families Department needs more independent oversight to improve accountability.
“I look forward to working with the new secretary; however, until the culture in the department changes I worry that the same headlines will continue to repeat themselves and CYFD will continue to fail to protect New Mexico’s children,” Fajardo said.
‘Caring for public’s trust’
Vigil, whose appointment is subject to Senate confirmation, said Tuesday that she would strive to strike a balance by being as transparent as possible while still abiding by confidentiality requirements in child welfare cases.
“We also must be open and responsible to the public with respect to how we investigate and the processes that we follow to make sure that we are caring for the public’s trust,” Vigil said.
She also vowed to push for sufficient funding to ensure the Children, Youth and Families Department has enough resources to investigate abuse claims, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns among experts of a drop in child abuse reporting.
A report issued this week by CYFD said vacancy rates for front-line caseworker positions have been cut in half since January 2019 – from 23% to 11% as of July 1 – and a backlog of child abuse investigations has been reduced.
However, the agency’s turnover rate for caseworkers has remained above 25% in recent years, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.
Meanwhile, Vigil will receive the same salary that Blalock has been making – $156,000 yearly – once she starts work on Oct. 1, a Lujan Grisham spokesman said.
Mariana Padilla, the director of the state Children’s Cabinet in the Governor’s Office, will serve as interim CYFD secretary after Blalock leaves and before Vigil officially begins.