One year ago, we bemoaned the lack of transparency at New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department amid a rash of deaths of children on the department’s radar, whistleblower allegations of efforts to conceal misconduct and the agency’s troubling tendency to stonewall the public.
Fast forward to today, and our hopes that a new CYFD Cabinet secretary would usher in an era of transparency and accountability are quickly fading.
Barbara Vigil, a retired state Supreme Court justice who took over CYFD last October, ordered an outside review of the agency — a move we applauded as a first step toward repairing a longstanding credibility problem. Her initial instincts were on the money: “The people of New Mexico deserve an independent outside entity, with expertise in this area, to come in and help us assess what we’re doing, and whether we can improve it.”
Vigil told the Journal Editorial Board Jan. 19 the review was “an effort on my part to really self-examine and see what we can do better to minimize the risk of child fatalities in New Mexico. So that process is ongoing. And we will have a report on that. And I’m happy to share it with you as well. … Some of this is hard, because it reflects, you know, maybe things that I wish we could do better, we would have done better … but it’s in the interest of transparency and accountability that I want to make change in this department.”
Vigil pledged during the January meeting to make the consultant’s report, which was due April 15, public. To date her agency has withheld the report and waffled as to why. A cynic might question if it’s being sanitized before release.
Under a $59,640 state contract, Collaborative Safety LLC was to review up to five child fatalities or high-profile incidents to develop “learning points,” conduct debriefings and a systemic analysis. The final report was to include an overview of findings and recommendations for improvement.
The agency has given different responses to Journal inquiries seeking the document under the state Inspection of Public Records Act, first claiming “attorney-client privilege” on June 30, then saying on July 8 the report will be released after agency attorneys finish reviewing it.
State Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, a retired lawyer and former deputy state attorney general, questioned why attorney-client privilege would be cited. “I thought, ‘Well this is good,’ but why are the results not being shared? It was a factual investigation; it did not appear to me to be asking for a legal opinion.”
On July 13, just yesterday, CYFD’s Enhancing Delivery of Services Steering Committee refused to allow a Journal reporter to sit in on a report update. Child advocacy groups, court officials and some state lawmakers were invited, so it wasn’t an internal discussion. A CYFD official told the reporter that information about the committee’s meetings would eventually be posted on the agency’s website.
And in typical CYFD fashion, a spokesman said before releasing the report, agency lawyers want to ensure compliance with confidentiality provisions of the New Mexico Children’s Code. Matthews says some lawmakers have been concerned CYFD has cited the confidentiality provisions of the Children’s Code to protect the agency instead of those the law is intended to protect — children and families.
If/when the report is finally released, CYFD’s penchant for secrecy and aversion to scrutiny will have coopted any department claims of self-reflection. Remember this is the department that just a year ago was using an app that automatically deleted communications between staffers — staffers paid and entrusted by the public to keep kids safe.
As Matthews wisely notes, “when you don’t share the information, then there’s a tendency for people to think it must be an awful report. That’s where the public trust piece comes in, by being forthcoming.”
Unfortunately, the more things change the more they stay the same. CYFD seems to still be more concerned with CYA than the Youth and Families in its title.
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.