SANTA FE — Even after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an executive order revamping New Mexico’s child welfare agency, lawmakers are moving ahead with a wide range of proposed fixes for the beleaguered department.
The latest development came Wednesday, when a House committee voted 9-1 to approve a bill creating an outside office to oversee the Children, Youth and Families Department — an idea the governor opposes.
Backers said the measure, House Bill 11, which is similar to proposals that have been floated in recent legislative sessions, is needed to reduce conflicts of interest within an agency that critics say has stubbornly resisted legislative overhauls despite a steady string of high-profile child abuse cases.
Rep. Tara Jaramillo, D-Socorro, said 43 other states already have similar independent offices to help families navigate complaints and custody issues.
“It is the desire this department will become an arms-length partner in the pursuit of fair and correct children services” and will reduce the burden on CYFD, Jaramillo said.
Lujan Grisham issued an executive order two weeks ago 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.
But the Democratic governor said proposals to create a new child advocacy office outside of CYFD could lead to a confrontational relationship between the two government offices, while also making it harder for CYFD to hire new social workers.
“Those settings make it very difficult to focus on transformation,” Lujan Grisham said during a Feb. 16 news conference. “You get stuck on whatever that one issue is and you can’t get out.”
With this year’s legislative session nearing its final stanza, some lawmakers appear to be running short on patience.
During a recent hearing on a bill about family assessments for certain at-risk children, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, suggested the bill might be vetoed but said it could send a message to the department.
“We’re telling CYFD to get off their ass,” Cervantes said. “I don’t have a nice way to say this any more. I’m beyond frustrated.”
On Tuesday, Sen. Crystal Diamond, R-Elephant Butte, questioned Children, Youth and Families Secretary Barbara Vigil about recent cases and the agency’s request for additional funding to hire more social workers, even though it already has about 290 vacancies in its Protective Services Division.
Diamond said lawmakers want the agency to be more receptive to outside ideas on how to better serve New Mexico children.
“It’s hard to believe we’re going to fix and address all of CYFD’s problems, when we’re letting CYFD identify which problems they want to bring forward,” she said.
New Mexico has been rocked by shocking allegations of child abuse in recent years, including a 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 longstanding challenges facing the department, which oversees the foster care system in a state with high rates of alcohol and drug abuse.
A retired chief Supreme Court justice, Vigil was appointed to lead the agency in August 2021 amid calls to improve transparency and strengthen the operations of a critical state agency.
But she’s faced pointed questions from legislators, including when Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, asked this week about a recent lawsuit accusing CYFD of failing to properly vet foster parents in Questa suspected of abusing a 4-year old boy who was placed in their care.
Vigil said state confidentiality laws prohibited her from discussing the case’s details, but acknowledged there’s room for improvement with how the department handles follow-up meetings with families who are the subject of complaints.
“I don’t believe that we do a good enough job in that aspect of our work,” Vigil told members of the Senate Finance Committee.
She also said the majority of the department’s interactions with New Mexico families are positive and don’t end in tragedy.
“Yes, we do have tragedies and we want to eliminate them,” Vigil said. “Can we eliminate it 100%? Perhaps not because it involves people who do harm.”
“We will do everything we can to minimize the risk of child harm,” she added.