January 10, 2017

Excused or not, CYFD says school absences could mean neglect

The state department that has been criticized for letting child abuse cases slip through the cracks is now under fire from some Albuquerque parents and school administrators for a lack of discretion when looking into student absences.

Days before Albuquerque Public Schools teachers, students and parents were gearing up for a two-week winter vacation, one mother said she got an unexpected visit from Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) case workers.

The mother recounted her story in an email to APS board members. NM Political Report obtained the mother’s email from CYFD, but the state agency redacted her name.

“I asked through the door who it was, and a woman yelled in a very loud voice, ‘WE ARE WITH THE CHILD ABUSE AND NEGLECT DEPARTMENT AND WE ARE INVESTIGATING YOU AND YOUR FAMILY,’” the mother wrote.

The mother hesitated to answer the door because she was home alone with her four-year-old daughter. She also wrote that one of the caseworkers threatened to yell about her case within earshot of her neighbors.

After CYFD investigators asked the mother about punishment methods for her children and household chores, the mother said caseworkers revealed the state was investigating her first grade daughter’s school absences.

According to APS records, that child missed 13 days of school between August and December of 2016.

The mother said one caseworker returned and—with her out of the room—questioned all six of her children. After a series of interviews, including one over the phone with the children’s father, who was at work, the caseworkers said the investigation was unsubstantiated and closed.

Now, public records show the investigation stemmed from a school counselor and a highly cautious CYFD.

A screening process

CYFD has been accused repeatedly of not doing enough to prevent New Mexico’s children from abuse. In two separate occasions within the past few years, two children that CYFD caseworkers had previously visited were then involved in high-profile killings.

A lawsuit was filed on behalf of nine-year-old Omaree Varela after the boy was killed by his mother. The lawsuit alleged the state did not do enough to prevent the boy’s death. The mother was convicted and sentenced to 40 years in prison for the killing.

More recently, reports revealed APS staff alerted CYFD to concerns about elementary school student Victoria Martens. Three people, including the girl’s mother, are now facing charges related to the death and dismemberment of Martens.

CYFD spokesman Henry Varela told NM Political Report that CYFD strives to weed out cases that don’t warrant an investigation but that ultimately a child’s welfare comes first.

“We have to take every allegation seriously,” Varela said. “If we don’t take it seriously we may be putting a child in jeopardy.”

According to emails obtained by NM Political Report, 19 cases were referred to CYFD for excessive absences by a staff member at S.Y. Jackson Elementary School in northeast Albuquerque.

Emails also show the staff member attended a CYFD training on neglect and abuse just prior to making the reports.

On Dec. 18, Executive Director for the Student Family and Community Supports Division of APS Kristine Meurer emailed CYFD Protective Services Deputy Director Annamarie Luna regarding investigations into S.Y. Jackson families.

Meurer wrote that counselors at a December CYFD training were instructed to report instances of 10 or more student absences. An S.Y. Jackson employee followed the instructions, even getting clarification from CYFD.

In emails from APS to CYFD, it was revealed that an APS employee reported 19 children for missing 10 or more days of school, adding clarification that there was no suspected abuse.

In her own email, Luna confirmed that not all of the referrals spurred an investigation.

“The calls were screened in and then assigned for investigation. Most of the cases had excused absences so there will be no follow up,” Luna wrote.

In a separate email that seemed to contradict what Luna wrote, CYFD Central Intake manager Sandra Gallegos told Varela some of the attendance reports were screened in because of a lack of information about their absences.

“Since there are no explanations provided by Source as to why the child may have been absent, these reports were screened in,” Gallegos wrote. “The [Service Definition Manual] does not differentiate between excused and unexcused.”

According to CYFD training materials, referrals are either screened in or screened out based on whether there is enough evidence to start an investigation.

Screened in cases trigger an investigation while screened out cases are closed. Both screened in and screened out referrals “are cross reported to law enforcement and other regulatory agencies, as mandated by CYFD policy.”

According to the training documents, if a report “does not meet the criteria for an investigation” the report is closed.

Varela said excessive absences, even if excused, can signal problems at home.

“Maybe you have a kid where the parent signs an excuse all the time,” Varela said.

Varela said educational neglect “is not a black and white situation” and that CYFD “errs on the side of caution when investigating excessive absences.”

He added that, “If somebody at the school thinks that educational neglect is happening they need to report it.”

According to CYFD training materials, for a situation to qualify as educational neglect an elementary school age child “must have 10 absences within a semester.”

‘That’s not going to happen again on my watch’

At least one other parent from S.Y. Jackson Elementary School contacted school board members, the school’s principal and the APS superintendent through email asking for an explanation.

Albuquerque family law attorney Joe Wiseman also received a home visit from CYFD regarding his seven-year-old son’s absences. In an email to APS Board President David Peercy, Wiseman said he and his wife were not home when CYFD came to his house. In Wiseman’s case, CYFD workers left an investigation notice at his door.

Wiseman said it was only through his son that he found out CYFD went to the school and questioned the seven-year-old.

“I work with CYFD daily in my professional life for all levels of abuse,” Wiseman wrote to Peercy. “CYFD can barely keep up with all of the physical abuse I see daily as a family law attorney, yet they are using their resources to investigate my son’s absences? This is absolutely absurd.”

Wiseman said he has contacted CYFD but not received a response.

In an interview with NM Political Report, Peercy was careful not to blame CYFD. But he added that the situation was “blown out of proportion completely.”

“That’s not going to happen again on my watch,” Peercy said. “Most of the time we handle that internally.”

S.Y. Jackson principal Jack Vermillion did reply to Wiseman, explaining that the school’s counselor attended a training by CYFD and asked when to report student absences to the department.

“Our counselor asked [three] different times during the presentation if this was all absences or unexcused absences,” Vermillion wrote to Wiseman. “She was told that it was all absences. She had never heard of this before, but she came back and did what she was told to do.”

Parent outrage and demands for an explanation from either APS or CYFD kicked off the series of emails between Luna and Meurer that NM Political Report obtained from CYFD. On Dec. 19, Meurer further pushed the agency for an explanation, asking why CYFD would encourage APS to report excused absences and why CYFD workers purportedly disclosed to parents that the school reported the absences in question.

“If we are going to be able to ensure that school personnel are comfortable making reports of suspected child abuse/neglect; schools/individuals have to be able to feel that their identities are kept confidential,” Meurer wrote.

In the same email, Meurer stressed the importance of an explanation and apology from CYFD.

“Some parents are on the verge of obtaining legal services as they are worried their reputations and future job prospects may be in jeopardy,” Meurer wrote.

Two days later, APS got a letter from the head of CYFD.

The state responds

In a letter to APS Superintendent Raquel Reedy, CYFD Secretary Monique Jacobson offered an explanation of the department’s investigation standards, along with a blanket apology to the families in question.

Monique Jacobson

Andy Lyman

Monique Jacobson

“The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) strives to be kind, respectful and responsive in our work with our families and our community,” Jacobson wrote. “This is one of our core operating principles, and we offer our sincere apology to those families who felt that we have not or did not operate in this manner.”

Jacobson went on to write that state law requires school officials to report “when a child has 10 or more unexcused absences in a year.”

Jacobson’s apology letter isn’t enough for Wiseman though, who called it a “cop out.”

“To me it felt like a form letter,” Wiseman said. “I’m mostly upset it did not address why my son was interrogated without my knowledge.”

While Wiseman is not ready to let APS off the hook for not handling his son’s absences internally, he said CYFD should have acted differently.

“They’re wasting their resources when it could have been resolved with a two minute phone call,” Wiseman said. “Not even to me, but to the counselor.”

Correction: A previous version of this story did not mention Henry Varela’s full name and title.