Editorial: Children's Code should not provide CYFD a shield from criticism - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Children’s Code should not provide CYFD a shield from criticism

The appalling child-abuse case in Texico, N.M., should be the last straw that triggers a meaningful overhaul of the state’s beleaguered child welfare system, reforms that need to be rooted in greater transparency.

How many times must we repeat that plea?

Without reform, the state of New Mexico may as well adopt a new slogan: Land of Child Endangerment. What occurred in Texico is the latest in a string of high-profile child maltreatment cases, fatalities or near fatalities that have taken place under Children, Youth and Families Department oversight.

Yet the public rarely gets a full picture of CYFD’s role, thanks to officials routinely citing the N.M.’s Children Code that shrouds the agency’s work in secrecy.

The code protects the rights and privacy of N.M.’s children and families. It requires CYFD to keep confidential specific case information about steps taken in any case — a major convenience for an agency that would prefer not to disclose how and where it failed to protect our most vulnerable. CYFD goes so far as to cite the code after a child’s death. Whose privacy is it protecting then?

State Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, told the Journal in July she has been working with an informal group of lawmakers on proposed legislation aimed at increasing transparency at CYFD. Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, says the Children’s Code “absolutely” needs revamping and House members have been meeting on a weekly basis for the last several months discussing CYFD reforms.

“You should expect to see a proposal or a set of proposals in the next session,” he said in a recent interview with the Journal Editorial Board.

Intervention can’t come soon enough as the horror of the Texico case unfolds through court records.

Former friends and relatives recently told State Police they notified authorities of the hungry children who lived on a ramshackle property and how they were abused, locked in dog kennels and chained to their beds.

State Police and investigators with CYFD went to the home July 22 after receiving a report; six children were removed from the home.

Jayme Kushman and Jaime Sena, who lived at the home, are being held without bond on multiple child abuse charges. Court records show the investigation is now delving back to at least 2016, when State Police allege Kushman and her then-girlfriend Lora Melancon were living together. Melancon, 41, of Clovis, was arrested Sept. 2 on four counts of abuse of a child. She bonded out of jail Sept. 7.

It’s clear from court documents and a redacted State Police lapel camera video of the July visit that CYFD had responded to the home multiple times before and removed the children at least once. At one point, a CYFD investigator told a State Police officer “they used to keep them in dog cages. We’ve taken these kids away from them before for being in dog cages.”

And yet the children were returned to the home. The Children’s Code denies the public any explanation why.

But CYFD says it is investigating. “CYFD’s new critical-incident review process focuses on how we can improve our work and how agencies, including law enforcement, can better work in tandem to collaboratively protect New Mexico children,” CYFD Cabinet Secretary Barbara J. Vigil said in a statement. “The department will now examine every action taken or failed to be taken — and why. We are committed to building a stronger system which is capable of responding rapidly and effectively based on safety science. That in-depth review of this particular case is ongoing.”

It’s hard to put a lot of stock in CYFD investigating itself — especially knowing that very little of what it finds will be shared with the public. So far the track record for transparency under Vigil is spotty —not what she promised when she took over.

Vigil ordered an outside review of the embattled agency’s response to critical incidents, including child fatalities, in January and pledged to make the consultant’s report, which was due April 15, public. It was released in late July, weeks after the Journal sought the document under the state Inspection of Public Records Act.

And when released, the review failed to provide details of what went wrong — or right — in any of those “critical incidents.” Instead, it offered up the obvious — high turnover, high caseloads and the “perception of staff that there is a culture of fear that impacts their work” after an adverse event involving a child.

When the department’s new Enhancing Delivery of Services Steering Committee met July 13 to discuss the review’s findings, the meeting was closed to the public. Vigil has since said she decided to allow public access to the steering committee’s meetings.

She also said CYFD is considering seeking changes in the state law that sets out the roles of law enforcement and CYFD in removing a suspected abused or neglected child from the home in an emergency.

We respect the people who work at CYFD. Their challenge is immense. But as recent history has demonstrated, the agency doesn’t possess the internal strength to reform itself, and regularly hiding behind the Children’s Code does not aid accountability.

Lawmakers must reform CYFD and the Children’s Code in the 2023 legislative session. Our children can’t wait for the next Texico case, or even worse, to happen.

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.

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