Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Second in a two-part series
With a law enforcement background and a no-nonsense approach, Misti Valdez took the lead in investigating child abuse allegations at a home in Texico, New Mexico, in her job with the state Children, Youth and Families Department.
But, like many workers in the agency’s child protective services division, Valdez has called it quits.
“I had only been there a year, and I call it a career-ending place,” said Valdez, who previously worked as a senior investigator for the Office of New Mexico Public Defender for five years.
“The problems start at the top and then just work their way down. It’s not the line workers that are the problem,” said Valdez, who was a supervisor until she left in early September. “The line workers generally come into the field wanting to do better, wanting to help the kids, and the further you go up, the more it’s frowned upon. It’s difficult. You just can’t keep people.”
Good workers are leaving the agency, said Valdez, who now lives in Oklahoma.
“I can tell you that whenever I was a supervisor on that unit, I had five investigators. And as of today, there’s only one investigator left. We went from a unit of six to right now, one,” Valdez told the Journal recently.
CYFD leadership has struggled to recruit and retain employees who investigate abuse and neglect, with turnover of protective services workers hitting 37% as of June 30, according to a legislative report.
Asked to respond to Valdez’s complaints, CYFD released a statement to the Journal.
“The safety of children is of utmost importance,” said CYFD Cabinet Secretary Barbara J. Vigil. “And to those employees who may feel like their urgent safety concerns are not being addressed, I would urge them to reach up through the organization to make sure that they are heard,” she said. “We always want to know what our frontline staff is seeing and hearing.”
Valdez is listed as a witness for the prosecution in the criminal cases against the three women facing multiple charges of child abuse after Valdez responded to the home of Jayme Kushman in Texico, near Clovis last July. Seven months earlier she went to the home and removed the 2-week-old infant of a homeless, drug addicted couple staying at the property.
State Police records have revealed that other CYFD investigators had been out to the Kushman property in the past.
But Valdez said her first contact with Kushman came on Jan. 18 when she was a CYFD investigator looking into a referral involving the infant. Lapel camera video from Texico police Chief Doug Bowman, who she asked to accompany her that day, shows them explaining why the newborn had to be taken into state custody on a 48-hour hold.
That child never went back.
“I did everything I could in that case. That was the beginning of my end with CYFD because I wasn’t going to just leave a child there when there were obviously problems,” Valdez told the Journal. “I could have lost my job over that because I wasn’t willing to release the child back that night. I stood my ground, I refused and we ended up keeping the child in custody.”
At the time, she said, the CYFD investigation was confined to investigating the referral. “I wasn’t familiar with the family and the only allegations in the report were about the newborn. So those (other) kids weren’t really my focus. I had no idea what the history was. That was discovered later.”
Valdez told the Journal she was committed to keeping the infant in state custody, even after the initial hold expired. And a couple in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, already had custody of the infant’s two older siblings and were licensed foster parents, so that made it easy to place the infant with them.
After Valdez’s first visit to the Texico home, she went back just “to be able to lay eyes on those (other) kids while I still could.” Valdez said she got the feeling “they knew I was coming somehow,” and the children were left there.
Valdez returned to the property in late July on a new referral alleging children were being chained to their beds and beaten. By that point, she had been promoted to supervisor.
That day, after searching the home and interviewing several of the children along with a State Police officer, they decided there were grounds to remove all six children living in the house. State Police then launched a criminal investigation.
The three women at the home, including Kushman, were later charged with child abuse and conspiracy. They have pleaded not guilty. Their attorneys either have declined to comment or didn’t return Journal phone calls.
CYFD has faced criticism in recent years for failing to remove children from parents or caregivers suspected of abuse and neglect, opting to offer services to allow the children to remain in the home.
Valdez said other CYFD investigators had recommended the children at the Kushman home be removed in the past, “but management wouldn’t allow it.”
Taking children into custody when abuse or neglect is suspected involves paperwork, Valdez said, and she believes some in the agency don’t want the extra work.
“A lot of it is just laziness,” Valdez said, adding that she knows of others at CYFD who have tried to make “every effort possible to protect these kids and the agency wouldn’t allow it to happen.”
Virginia Harrington, the Oklahoma woman who now has custody of the infant and her two siblings, learned of Valdez’s efforts after CYFD removed the newborn in January. Harrington said those children are doing well. She said she was relieved the others were now in a safer place.
“In the end, it’s only because of her doing her job and being adamant that something crazy is going on in that home that all those kids got rescued,” Harrington said of Valdez. “So really, and truly, Misti’s the hero in all of this.”
Some will say she’s disgruntled, Valdez told the Journal. “But I’m not worried about that. I know I did the right thing.”
“I learned a lot while I was there. I learned that I do not want to work in child welfare anymore.”