May 8, 2018

Investigation reveals serious abuses within treatment foster care system

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Don Usner/Searchlight New Mexico

The 11-year-old boy’s explanation didn’t make sense.

He had shown up Sept. 25, 2017, at San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington –  purple bruises covering his body, ligature marks on his neck, a patch of hair ripped from his head and black eyes so badly swollen he couldn’t latch his glasses behind his ears. Doctors feared he had a skull fracture.

He insisted he’d tripped in his front yard while practicing soccer.

His foster mother, Hope Graciano, hovered nearby, accompanied by a social worker from the private agency that six months earlier had placed the boy and his younger sister under her care.

A security guard later told police that when she walked past the boy, he looked up at her and whispered, “Help me.”

Hospital staff called the police.

It didn’t take long for police investigators to uncover what they believed was an appalling chain of abuse. Their reports laid out their allegations in vivid detail: The boy had been starved, forced to eat his own vomit, and made to exercise till his body gave out. He had been locked in his room, his doors outfitted with alarms and motion sensors. The bruises on his face had nothing to do with soccer, he later admitted; they were the result of a savage beating by Graciano with a metal piece of a bed frame — punishment for getting a math question wrong on his homework, he told police.

His little sister had also suffered serious abuse, police later said.

Don Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

Hope Graciano’s home in Farmington, where she cared for several foster children.

Det. Chris Blea, who led the Farmington Police Department’s four-month investigation, said he didn’t understand how La Familia-Namaste, the Albuquerque-based agency licensed by New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) to place children and oversee the safety of foster homes, could possibly have missed what he believed was ongoing abuse.

Jocelyn Wilson, a supervisor at La Familia-Namaste, was tasked with keeping in regular contact with the foster family. She met Graciano at the hospital that September morning, and later told police there had never been any reports against Graciano of abuse.

“As Hope’s direct supervisor, I found it very hard to believe that she was oblivious to everything,” Blea said.

Graciano, 53, is charged with three counts of felony child abuse and one count of felony bribery of a witness. She has denied the charges and is awaiting trial.

Graciano’s attorney, Arlon Stoker, did not respond to numerous requests for comment. Neither did Jocelyn Wilson. La Familia-Namaste declined to comment.

The case shines a light on the opaque world of what is known as treatment foster care, a specialized branch of care reserved for the most traumatized children in state custody and run by private nonprofit and for-profit companies – companies that operate with minimal oversight from state officials, according to an investigation by Searchlight New Mexico.

In fact, the investigation revealed numerous cases of serious abuse within this system. Within the past six years:

  • In Tucumcari, a treatment foster care company licensed a suspected pedophile as a foster father. He went on to abuse multiple children placed in his home between 2013 and 2014, according to lawsuits, and was later convicted of felony sexual assault on a minor.
  • In Albuquerque, a 2017 lawsuit claims a girl was placed in a treatment foster home after being sexually abused by her biological family, only to be abused repeatedly by her foster father. That family was also licensed by La Familia-Namaste.
  • In Bernalillo County, a 2012 lawsuit alleged a treatment foster father repeatedly sexually assaulted his foster daughter, who had severe intellectual disabilities. The case was settled.

In each of those cases, attorneys argue the treatment foster care company missed obvious warning signs and should have known the children were in danger.

Eleven treatment foster care companies currently operate in New Mexico, all of which train, vet, license and oversee their own foster families to care for children and youth in CYFD custody. In any given year, more than 900 kids cycle through these programs, with a cost of $25,000 per child, according to a 2017 Legislative Finance Committee report.

Don Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

A soccer field in Farmington.

Treatment foster care is meant to be a specialized program for youth with especially high behavioral health or emotional needs. But as rising numbers of children flood the foster system — 2,639 at last count, a 44 percent increase over the past five years — advocates and attorneys say youth are cycling in and out of treatment foster care at much higher rates than the companies are equipped to handle.

“I would guess probably 80 percent of the youth we see have been in treatment foster care,” said Ezra Spitzer, director of the Albuquerque foster youth advocacy nonprofit NMCAN.

That’s especially true for older youth, who Spitzer says often get sent to treatment foster care for normal teenage behavior.

“A lot of what we see is just creating a clinical diagnosis for being a teenager, calling it oppositional defiant disorder or something,” Spitzer said. “Even the best teenager in the world is oppositional defiant.”

Once the diagnosis is made —whether for a teen who got in trouble or a young person with genuine trauma-related mental health needs – a private treatment foster care company begins  the process of placing the child in one of its own foster homes.

Searchlight’s investigation found that numerous oversights and lapses in safety protocols have put children in grave danger. The reporting for this story included dozens of interviews with police, attorneys, social workers, treatment foster employees and former foster children. Searchlight also requested and examined hundreds of pages of CYFD audits, police documents and public records.

License first, ask questions later

CYFD relies on a number of safety checks, carried out by the department and by treatment foster care companies, to screen public and private foster homes for potential risks and to prevent cases of abuse like the one in Farmington.

The agency’s own rules stipulate that a treatment foster care license cannot be renewed unless those checks have been put in place. CYFD said in an email that “the licensing standards of foster and adoptive parents must be followed and any deviation from those standards will be handled accordingly within the regulations and laws.”

It turns out, however, that CYFD routinely renews treatment foster licenses in the absence of required safety checks, department audits show.

The task of monitoring and auditing treatment foster companies falls to the department’s Child Placement Agency unit, staffed by a single employee.

“We have managed effectively even with one position,” said Rosaisela Burciaga, CYFD bureau chief of foster care and adoptions. “I don’t have any doubt that we’re doing our job.”

By comparison, however, West Virginia, a state with a slightly smaller population than New Mexico, has four specialists in its treatment foster care monitoring unit.

Between late 2015 and 2017, CYFD auditors found problems with home inspection reports filed by every one of the treatment foster care companies currently operating in New Mexico.

Some of the more than 120 problems found were minor, such as the use of outdated forms.

Many were more serious.

The audits reveal a widespread pattern of failures to comply with safety protocols.

During the 2015-17 period, the department identified at least 28 instances in which treatment foster care companies broke rules on checking for reports of abuse and neglect by foster families; at least 38 cases in which courts records were inadequately reviewed; and at least91 instances in which documentation — academic records, medical records, the child’s history throughout the foster system — was either missing or incomplete.

According to CYFD audits, one company, Familyworks Inc., a treatment foster care operation run by the for-profit residential youth treatment center Desert Hills in Albuquerque, racked up massive, repeated violations – 288 in total – since 2012. Among those violations were missing criminal records checks and incomplete home inspection studies.

Despite those findings, CYFD has regularly renewed Familyworks’ license, noting “a commitment by staff to correct deficiencies and improve the process of managing the records.”

CYFD has also renewed the license of every other treatment foster care company in New Mexico since at least 2012.

“There’s no money unless they’re put in a licensed placement,” said Bette Fleishman, director of Pegasus Legal Services for Children, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit law office that advocates for children and families. “So they license them quickly and then backtrack around.”

The scramble for a bed

Little is known about the boy and his sister before they wound up in Hope Graciano’s drab, off-white house in a working-class neighborhood in east Farmington.

Like all children in foster care, their personal backgrounds are closely guarded by CYFD, which to this day remains their legal guardian. People who know the boy describe him as a quiet kid who likes soccer. School records describe his younger sister as a rambunctious girl who sometimes craves extra hugs.

“The children who come into the foster care system are often from low-income families with profound mental health, drug and alcohol addiction problems,” said Mike Hart, an Albuquerque attorney who has spent the past three decades taking CYFD and foster care companies to court over failures to protect children. “They are kids who have come into contact with the department repeatedly. So, by the time these children are finally taken into the system, they have experienced multiple, life-changing traumas.”

What is certain is that the two children entered the system with a history of abuse, neglect and trauma. At some point before being sent to live with Graciano, caseworkers determined they needed more comprehensive, specialized care than a standard foster home could provide, and sent a referral to La Familia-Namaste.

To gauge the best fit for the boy and his sister, La Familia-Namaste would have conducted a “best interest placement,” a legally-required comprehensive assessment of how a foster family’s training and skills fit with the needs of the child.

It is designed to be a careful, painstaking process.

But attorneys say more often than not, CYFD and private treatment foster care companies scramble to find a last-minute placement – sometimes completing assessments after putting the child in the home.

“They’ll farm it out, and say, ‘We’ve got these kids, who will take them?’” Fleishman said.

“Someone has a bed, so the kid goes there. Whether that treatment foster care agency has the appropriate counseling for that kid is a total hit and miss… A lot of those kids end up doing worse because they’re not getting the services they need.”

Placing a traumatized child with the right family is a high-stakes game. Get it right, and the child can find a healthy environment and position himself or herself for a productive future. Get it wrong, and the consequences can ripple across the child’s life.

A pattern of red flags

Hope Graciano was a regular at Farmington Magistrate Court, a defendant in nine debt collection cases since 2004. Her husband, Eristeo Graciano, was a co-defendant in six of those cases.

While those cases wouldn’t on their own have disqualified Graciano as a foster parent, they should have set off alarms, according to Burciaga of CYFD. Evidence of financial stress is a signal, she said, that “a more robust evaluation” is required.

Even more critically, Graciano had a long and documented history of abusive and violent behavior.

“Anybody that looked hard enough would have seen a pattern of conduct,” Det. Blea said. “We were able to find a pattern of conduct that went back 30 years of pretty severe physical abuse.”

For many years, that abuse was directed against Hope Graciano’s stepdaughter, Erika Graciano-Stohl. According to police reports, Graciano repeatedly slapped, kicked, screamed and pushed her stepdaughter into a wall. She once threw a plastic chair at the girl’s face, leaving a permanent dent in her nose.

Graciano-Stohl said she often feared for her life.

“One of the reasons I didn’t tell anyone she was abusing me was because she would tell me, ‘If you tell anybody, I will bury you in the backyard six feet under and nobody will ever find you or know that you are gone,’” she told detectives who contacted her during their investigation of the 11-year-old boy’s abuse.

A 2009 report from CYFD’s Protective Services Division noted Graciano’s abusive behavior toward her stepdaughter (Graciano was not the target of that investigation). As mentioned in that report, Graciano-Stohl told investigators that as a young girl she “couldn’t even wear short-sleeve shirts” because she was so frequently covered in bruises.

Six years after that report was filed, Graciano submitted her treatment foster parent application to La Familia-Namaste.

Placed in a ‘SAFE’ home

One of the primary tools used to screen potential foster parents is the Structured Analysis Family Evaluation, known as the SAFE home study.

An in-depth, comprehensive survey, it is used by 48 states to assess the ability of foster parent applicants to care for children and catch any safety risks before a license is granted. It relies on in-depth interviews and psychological assessments of every resident in the household. It requires multiple references from close acquaintances or immediate family members, including all applicants’ adult children and stepchildren living outside the home.

La Familia-Namaste and other treatment foster care companies regularly subcontract the SAFE process out to third parties.

Erika Graciano-Stohl says no one spoke to her in person about her stepmother’s application.

“They had given Hope some paperwork for me to fill out, but other than that I never heard from them,” Graciano-Stohl said. In filling out that paperwork, she reported a family history of alcohol and drug abuse. However, she said, she did not feel comfortable addressing the physical abuse she experienced in an informal survey.

“If they had processed everything the proper way and interviewed people face-to-face instead of just on paper, I have a hundred percent feeling that she would have not gotten her license to foster,” Graciano-Stohl said.

La Familia-Namaste declined to share the SAFE home study it conducted on Hope Graciano with Searchlight.

But CYFD’s own audits show the company fell short on its SAFE home studies. While Graciano was employed by La Familia-Namaste, CYFD found the company often documented minimal information about its foster parent applicants and sometimes failed to complete the studies within the required deadline. During that same period, the company also failed to follow protocols for criminal background checks, abuse and neglect checks, and courts records checks.

Between 2015 and 2016, CYFD investigators verified two cases of abuse in other La Familia-Namaste foster homes. Those families are no longer licensed through the company, according to audits.

Yet La Familia-Namaste enjoys a unique position among New Mexico’s child-focused nonprofits, earning over $1.6 million to conduct SAFE home studies for CYFD-run foster homes across the state — the only company entrusted with that responsibility, according to CYFD contracts.

In 2017, months before the 11-year-old boy and his sister ended up in Graciano’s home, CYFD awarded La Familia-Namaste a two-year license extension — an unusual move reserved for companies “with an excellent track record,” in Burciaga’s words.

State custody, private oversight

M has a bruise on the right side of her face today.

M out in the a.m. to see a doctor about a huge bruise on hip.

M comes to school with a black eye. Hope [Graciano] states that she was jumping rope … the ropes came untied and one hit her in the face.

These are among some of the notes taken by Heather Beaty, a fourth-grade teacher at Animas Elementary School, who documented her suspicions of abuse of the 11-year-old boy’s little sister, M, and suspicious behavior by Graciano. (The girl’s first name was documented in the teacher’s notes. Searchlight changed her name to M – not her real initial – to protect her identity.)

In her notes, which were turned over to police, Beaty describes the child’s fear of her foster mother after getting in trouble in class:

She said I am going to be in so much trouble. Ms. Hope is going to be so mad … The closer we got to the doors outside, her anxiety grows … When I looked down at M she was crying … She hugged me super tight and did not want to let go.

In April of last year, nearly six months before the girl’s brother arrived in the emergency room, Beaty’s notes show that school faculty met with Graciano, the two siblings, and a supervisor from La Familia-Namaste to discuss their concerns. Beaty and the school principal declined to comment, as did CYFD and La Familia-Namaste.

Superintendent Eugene Schmidt said in an email that he couldn’t speak about “whether any meetings took place” due to legal requirements “and student privacy considerations.”

That meeting, however, was not the first time La Familia-Namaste should have been alerted to concerns about potential abuse by Graciano. A year earlier, CYFD investigated a case in which another young girl in her care had mysterious bruising – apparent grab marks on her face.

Graciano told investigators at the time the girl had fallen off the bed and hit her head on a book. CYFD ruled the case unsubstantiated, police said. But according to CYFD protocol, the Protective Services Division would have notified La Familia-Namaste of the investigation.

“It’s preventable, and that’s really the heartbreak here,” said Sara Crecca, an Albuquerque attorney who has worked 17 years as a court-appointed guardian for children in CYFD custody. (She, however, does not have any specific knowledge of the Graciano case.) “Our system needs changing from every aspect, from every angle. The whole entire apple cart needs to be turned over.”

But the ultimate responsibility, Crecca said, always falls to CYFD and the state caseworker assigned to ensure the child’s safety, visit the child in the treatment foster home and attend treatment meetings with the foster care company. Often, she said, those caseworkers send substitutes to those meetings or attend them by phone, leading to missed warning signs.

“The department sets the bar so low,” said Crecca. “And then they keep tripping over that bar.”

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to investigative journalism. Read more of our stories on Raising New Mexico at projects.searchlightnm.com/ .