Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
A former state Children, Youth and Families Department worker who claims she tried in vain to keep four children from being returned to their unfit parents in 2020 has received $250,000 to settle her whistleblower lawsuit against the agency.
The payout to Ivy Woodward is in addition to a recent $30,000 settlement reached with a foster parent who lost her foster care license after she alerted the public that the family disappeared just weeks after CYFD returned them on a trial home visit.
The total paid to date in claims related to the tragic case stands at $370,000, which also includes a $90,000 settlement with a CYFD investigator who alleged she was retaliated against after raising concerns about how CYFD handled the case.
Still ongoing is a federal civil rights lawsuit that alleges the children were abused and the youngest sustained permanent brain injury as a result of CYFD’s scheme to get rid of the case by reuniting the family. Agency officials are also accused of hiding the truth from the courts and hindering law enforcement. CYFD denies any wrongdoing or culpability.
The 27-year-old biological father of the four children, Andrei Ducila, is awaiting trial in North Carolina on first-degree, child-abuse charges while his wife, Luiza Badea, 25, is serving three years probation in New Mexico after she pleaded guilty to child abuse in August 2021.
Both are Romanian nationals who first came to CYFD’s attention after Hobbs police responded to calls of the family soliciting money outside a Walmart. The family had been living out of an old van at the time. And the parents were charged with child abuse.
“Ultimately CYFD is having to pay out these settlements because they punished my clients for doing their jobs,” said Benjamin Gubernick, a Phoenix attorney who represented both Woodward and former CYFD investigator Kelly Mazy. Both Mazy and Woodward have since left the child welfare agency.
CYFD spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst told the Journal that no fault was admitted by CYFD in settling the cases, noting “lawsuits are often settled for many reasons.”
“While CYFD felt confident in its defense in both cases, the state made a sound decision to settle these cases to avoid further costs of protracted litigation,” Moore Pabst said in an email. The Woodward lawsuit was set to go to trial this fall.
Hobbs police found the four children, ages 4, 3, 1 and an infant, to have been medically neglected, malnourished and had severe sunburns. Their tooth decay was so advanced, they had to be placed on soft diets, the federal lawsuit states.
CYFD officials resisted filing a formal abuse and neglect case at the time. The fear was that the couple would be deported and CYFD could be stuck taking care of the children until they could find someone to adopt them, the lawsuit alleges.
There was a stalemate with Hobbs police and CYFD for several hours outside the Walmart until someone called a state district court judge, who contacted CYFD and asked when the filing of the case would occur, court records state.
CYFD filed for custody on June 3, 2019, the children were placed in foster care, and Woodward, at her supervisor’s direction, began to work on a treatment plan to send the children back to their parents, who were charged with child abuse.
Woodward allegedly was told by CYFD officials to conceal the parents’ identities from law enforcement if she was pulled over with the couple in her car.
Woodward was also ordered to withhold from the foster family the fact that two of the children had tested positive for tuberculosis, the lawsuit alleged. She disobeyed that order and the foster family drove them to Lubbock, Texas, for treatment, the lawsuit alleges.
Meanwhile, the biological parents failed to adhere to provisions of the treatment plan, the lawsuit states, but were eventually allowed supervised visits at a CYFD office.
One time, the parents tried to leave a CYFD office with the children, and locked themselves in a room when police were called. Hobbs Police had to force entry to get them out, but CYFD allowed visitation to continue as scheduled.
A therapist reported disturbing interviews with the children suggesting their father had hit and kicked the children in the past. But CYFD officials ordered Mazy to unsubstantiate those abuse allegations, the lawsuit stated.
Woodward had planned to tell the court overseeing the case that the children wouldn’t be safe if returned, the lawsuit states, but she was directed by a top CYFD attorney to censor herself if asked her opinion by the judge.
She never testified because a lawyer for the children needed her testimony and was concerned that CYFD would fire her if she testified. The hearing was canceled. And CYFD removed her from the case.
In April 2020, CYFD returned the children to the parents on a trial basis. That same month the parents absconded with the children.
Police were unable to issue an Amber Alert because CYFD refused to state that the agency’s custodial rights were being interfered with, the lawsuit contends, and agency officials also hindered Hobbs police’s attempts to locate the children. CYFD in court records denies the allegations.
The family’s whereabouts were unknown until November 2020 when the infant was “dumped” at a North Carolina hospital by her mother. The child had suffered a fractured skull and brain damage that has left her permanently blind.
The family was later found in Houston, Texas, and the parents arrested. Since then, their children have been in CYFD custody in Bernalillo County.
A ‘culture of fear’
Meanwhile, CYFD decided to revoke the foster care license of Jill Jones after she posted to social media about CYFD’s failure to properly alert authorities and the nation about the kidnapping of the children. One of the children had been temporarily placed in her home before being returned to the couple.
CYFD had contended Jones released confidential information, which she denied in a counterclaim against the agency. The settlement of her claims was announced last week. She couldn’t be reached for comment.
Brian Blalock, then-head of CYFD, resigned in August 2021 in a mutual agreement with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
His successor, Barbara Vigil, has pledged to offer more support to protective services employees after an outside consultant in July found a “culture of fear” within the agency in which staff are feeling overworked and under-appreciated. The turnover rate among protective services workers hit 37 percent in the second quarter of this year.
Attorney Gubernick, who also is an attorney in the federal lawsuit filed on behalf of the Romanian couple’s four children, told the Journal that aside from the financial settlements, “CYFD also lost two of its most principled and competent employees. And that’s really a shame, given the staffing problems they claim to have. There aren’t any winners in this. Ultimately, we’re all poorer for the fact that they aren’t working there any more.”