SANTA FE — Facing pressure from lawmakers and advocates alike to increase oversight amid a string of high-profile abuse cases, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a shakeup of New Mexico’s child welfare agency on Thursday.
The Democratic governor issued an executive order creating an office of innovation within the Children, Youth and Families Department and a new advisory council, while also saying her administration would launch a national search to hire several new top agency officials.
She also indicated CYFD Secretary Barbara Vigil would remain at the department’s helm amid the agency reorganization, but expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of a department she described as “dysfunctional.”
“The no. 1 priority of that department is protecting children and improving their well-being,” Lujan Grisham said during a news conference at the state Capitol. “That is not what is occurring in the state of New Mexico in a way that either the secretary or I want.”
Some legislators and advocates involved in New Mexico’s child welfare system have called for independent oversight of CYFD, among other changes.
During a news conference earlier Thursday at the Roundhouse, Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, said the Lujan Grisham administration has opposed CYFD overhaul proposals during this year’s session while seeking more funding to fill vacant job positions.
“It just seems like the entire agency needs to be dismantled and rebuilt at this point,” Diamond said.
Two bills have been filed during this year’s 60-day session creating a new child advocacy office outside of CYFD — one sponsored by House Democrats and the other by Senate Republicans.
But Lujan Grisham said Thursday such proposals could lead to a confrontational relationship between the two government offices, while also making it harder for CYFD to hire new social workers.
The governor, who began her second term last month after winning reelection last November, said her administration would also push to hire retired social workers to bolster CYFD’s ranks amid high vacancy rates and caseloads that are nearly double the national average, in part by seeking changes to a state law that bars retired public workers from returning to work will still collecting pension benefits.
In addition, the governor said an outside firm would be hired to conduct an annual audit of the Children, Youth and Families Department to identify possible structural issues.
“We are embracing as professionals that this department is dysfunctional,” Lujan Grisham said. “We have problems that aren’t tenable and we will stop that circular effort, unequivocally.”
Longstanding issues plaguing CYFD
New Mexico has reeled from shocking allegations of child abuse in recent years, including the recent report of a sexual assault inside a CYFD office building in Albuquerque.
In addition, child maltreatment death rates more than doubled during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to legislative data.
More recently, legislative analysts have continued to flag staff turnover and high case loads as challenges facing the department, which oversees the foster care system in a state with high rates of alcohol and drug abuse.
In particular, the turnover rate for CYFD youth care specialists has more than doubled in recent years — hitting 39% in the 2022 budget year.
Vigil, a retired chief Supreme Court justice, was appointed to lead the agency in August 2021 amid calls to improve transparency and strengthen the operations of a critical state agency.
She took over for Brian Blalock, who had faced questions about department-wide use of a secure text messaging app criticized by open records advocates, a lawsuit filed under the Whistleblower Protection Act and alleged state procurement code violations.
During Thursday’s news conference, Vigil said the governor’s executive order came about after a year-long review of the agency, from both outside experts, advocates and department officials.
“We need to transform Children, Youth and Families Department so it is responsive quickly to the needs of families,” Vigil said.
Some Democratic lawmakers expressed support for the governor’s approach to the issue on Thursday, with Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, D-Albquerque, saying “this has to happen now.”
But other lawmakers and advocates remained skeptical.
Sen. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, whose daughter works for the agency, said CYFD has been “unwilling or unable to hold themselves accountable” for much of the agency’s history.
Maralyn Beck, a former foster parent who is the executive director of new Mexico Child First Network, questioned whether the executive order would fix core issues facing the agency.
“Why don’t we ask the kids sleeping alone in CYFD offices tonight if they think the proposed solutions in Santa Fe today will provide them the relief and support they seek?” she said. “Until then, our work is not done.”
Bill would codify executive order in law
The executive order signed by the governor took effect immediately Thursday, but Lujan Grisham said more details about CYFD’s reorganization would be released after this year’s 60-day legislative session, which ends March 18.
While legislation is not necessary to implement the order, a bill was filed this week that would codify parts of the order into law and also appropriate $1.6 million to implement some of the changes.
That measure, House Bill 461, is sponsored by House Majority Leader Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, who said Thursday that previous budget cuts and the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated the challenges facing the state’s child welfare system.