February 25, 2019

‘Outsider’ CYFD secretary looks to turn around troubled department

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Andy Lyman

New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department Secretary Brian Blalock.

New Mexico’s Children Youth and Families Department Secretary Brian Blalock is an outsider.

He is one of only two cabinet-level appointees in the Michelle Lujan Grisham administration not from New Mexico—and lawmakers have not let him forget it. But when asked by legislators how he plans to lead CYFD with little institutional knowledge, Blalock always gives the same answer: He’s always been an outsider.

In a recent interview with NM Political Report, Blalock said through much of his career as a child welfare advocate, he’s learned that there is no one correct way to fix things.

“No matter where you go, you have to listen first,” Blalock said. “Really, really, you have to listen first.”

And Blalock has plenty of listening to do.

Until last month, Blalock worked for a San Francisco area child advocacy group. Now he’s navigating the other side of advocacy work and fielding phone calls, emails and in-person visits from lawmakers and child welfare advocates regarding proposed changes to the department.

“People are throwing—throwing—bills at us, just nonstop,” Blalock said.

Proposals range from adding more oversight to at-risk children to providing better training to department investigators and case workers.

But one advocate says she is trying to make sure foster parents have more of a voice as CYFD moves forward with a new secretary.

Foster care changes

Maralyn Beck is a foster parent who began by making her home available for respite care or temporary and sometimes emergency placement of children in foster care . Now, after seeing how the system works from the inside, Beck is a full-time foster parent and recently founded New Mexico Child First Network, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“This has changed the course of my life,” Beck said of working with children in foster care.

A public relations specialist who has also worked for public agencies, Beck said she got involved with child advocacy after becoming disillusioned with disingenuous politicians calling for changes, but never implementing significant changes.

Now she spends most of her time in Santa Fe, meeting with lawmakers and speaking in committee meetings about foster care needs.

Right now, Beck said, the state needs to improve its foster system, by listening to and providing more training and resources to foster families.

Beck worked with a team of other advocates and legislators to come up with House Joint Memorial 10, which would create a child protective services task force and make recommendations to CYFD on how to improve the foster system. Now, that bipartisan joint memorial is headed to the Senate. Since memorials do not change state law, it does not require the governor’s signature.

As head of CYFD, Blalock is already navigating a handful of pending lawsuits against CYFD, over issues ranging from allegations that the department did not do enough to protect children to at least one allegation that the department violated a family’s constitutional rights. He’ll also be tasked with overseeing the juvenile justice and early childhood services aspects of the department. But New Mexicans like Beck are optimistic.

“We’ve had really productive and optimistic meetings with the secretary,” Beck said. “We know that he’s definitely the right man for the job and we all need to work together to support him.”

And Blalock seems more than ready to listen to ideas.

Looking ahaed

Over the past several years, CYFD has seen its share of scandals and controversies, and Blalock said he was fully aware of the low public reputation.

“I mean, our job is to support kids, that’s not controversial at all,” he said. “But, yes I know there has been a series of controversies.”

His approval from legislators contrasts with his predecessor Monique Jacobson, who took over as head of CYFD after serving as the state’s tourism secretary. When Jacobson was confirmed, many lawmakers were wary about her credentials.

Blalock, in contrast, received high praises during his confirmation process.

In the first part of Blalock’s confirmation process, during a Senate Rules meeting, Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, raised his concerns about the secretary’s knowledge of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), a federal law that ensures Native American children are not taken from their tribes when placed into foster care.  

“I know you’ve been probably drinking out of two fire hoses since you came,” Sanchez said.

Blalock said he knows a lot about ICWA and is strongly in favor of the intent behind it — ensuring children have a chance to be placed with family before living with a stranger in foster care. A common theme from Blalock in legislative meetings as well as his interview with NM Political Report is the need for “aunties” and “grandmas” as well as other family members to ensure stability for children in foster care.

Without specifically mentioning any one aspect of CYFD, Blalock seems ready to hear all thoughts and recommendations.  

“There’s real wisdom [in New Mexico] that hasn’t necessarily been given the attention, maybe the support, I don’t know, but definitely not the attention,” Blalock said. “There’s some extraordinary work that’s happening here and there and I think part of my job is pulling that work out and figuring out how it can be expanded.”

Update: NMPR changed the phrase “foster children,” which appeared in the original version of the story, to “children in foster care” to more accurately represent the experiences of children within the foster care system.