Foster parents, biological parents and kids face new challenges amid state’s response to COVID-19 outbreak

Families first. That’s the sentiment behind last week’s decision by of New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department to continue visitation between foster kids and their biological families — despite the risk of infection from coronavirus. Though CYFD closed its supervised visitation offices for the vast majority of cases, the agency is now instructing staff to collect children from their foster homes to meet up with their birth families in public parks and other outdoor spaces. The meetings will continue in spite of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s order Monday that all nonessential businesses in New Mexico close and that all residents stay at home “except for outings essential to health, safety, and welfare.”

Caught between the new order and the constitutional rights of biological parents, many foster parents are panicked by CYFD’s directive, insisting that it will put the health of their households at risk. “I’ve cleaned my house, I’ve canceled all activities, I’ve washed my hands 6,000 times,” said Jill Michel, a mother of seven who fosters two children for CYFD.

On lockdown: Social distancing, recommended to limit the spread of COVID-19, is not an option in ICE detention facilities.

As COVID-19 spreads around the world, governments are urging people to keep physical distance between themselves and others. It’s a simple way to limit the transmission of the virus and save lives. But about 38,000 people held in crowded migrant detention centers around the U.S. — including three lockups in New Mexico — don’t have that option. “The one thing that everyone else is being told to do, you can’t do,” said Allegra Love, executive director of the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, a legal services organization for migrants. The virus, she said, is “going to tear through these confined spaces.

Parole revoked: A series of mishaps in ouster of parole chief

Last Friday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham attempted to inform Sheila Lewis that she was no longer chair of the parole board. It didn’t quite go as planned. For four days, Lewis was none the wiser. That’s because the governor’s office had sent the message to an old AOL email address — one Lewis estimates she hasn’t used in over a decade. This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permisison.

Power switch: As New Mexico swaps coal for renewables, San Juan County struggles to chart a new future

BLOOMFIELD, NM — Leaning against the wall in a corner of Geneva Griego’s white-paneled living room is a bag of coal. Like many people who live in the Farmington area —part of the coal-rich Four Corners region where New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah meet — her family relies on a mixture of coal and wood to heat their home. A few feet away, in the kitchen, her 19-year-old daughter Sharon tosses a scoop into the wood stove and closes the small glass door. For almost 50 years, coal has fueled not only homes in this region but also much of its economy. And the Griego family’s fortunes have been intertwined with coal almost from the beginning.

Full court pressed: New Mexico Court of Appeals is swamped with backlogged cases, leaving hundreds in limbo

Ruben Romero thinks he got an unfair trial. The 20-year-old is imprisoned at the Lea County Correctional Facility in Hobbs for his role in a 2015 murder, which happened when he was 16. He is appealing his 10-year sentence because, he claims, he wasn’t properly informed of his Miranda rights – his right to remain silent – before he was questioned by a police detective. 

The New Mexico Court of Appeals received all of the documents in April of last year — 10 months ago — and nothing has happened since. 

“Wow, wow!” said Gina Maestas, who ran the court’s staff attorney division from 1991 to 2002 and served as chief clerk from 2006 to 2011. “That’s a really long time for a criminal case.”

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. But these days, long delays are routine at the state’s second highest court.

State officials scramble to respond to restraint and seclusion in schools

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Attorney General Hector Balderas and Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, are all moving independently to rein in some of the most dangerous practices in New Mexico classrooms: restraint and seclusion. Each is pursuing separate initiatives to enforce stricter reporting requirements for incidents involving the controversial practices.  

Their efforts follow an October 2019 Searchlight investigation revealing that New Mexico schools routinely restrain and seclude special education students, often in violation of state and federal law. The state’s largest school district, Albuquerque Public Schools, has restrained and secluded students well over 4,600 times since 2014, the investigation found. It also found that APS repeatedly filed misleading reports to the federal government, even taking the extraordinary step of refusing to provide records to parents whose children were restrained or secluded.  

Often referred to as “therapeutic holding” or “physical management,” restraint is a contentious and dangerous method of behavior management derived from karate and judo, in which specially trained school staff place children and youth in physical holds that restrict movement. Seclusion, another behavior management practice, entails forcing a student into isolated rooms sometimes referred to as “scream rooms.” 

Child psychologists have decried the practices as ineffective and traumatic — for both students and staff.

Wastewater, wastewater everywhere: In the Permian Basin, a new kind of boom

CARLSBAD — In the Permian Basin, now the most prolific oil field in the world, hundreds of miles of plastic pipelines snake along dirt roads, drilling pads and the edges of farm fields. But they are not carrying oil. Instead, they’re transporting an equally precious commodity in this arid region straddling the New Mexico-Texas border: water. 

“Pipelines are going in everywhere,” said Jim Davis as he drove a camouflage-hued, four-wheeled ATV across his land toward the water station he owns. Selling the water beneath his property to oil and gas companies has given Davis and his wife, who has cancer, a financial security that eluded them for most of their lives. Every day, a steady stream of water trucks flows in and out of his station south of Carlsbad, filling up on his high-quality freshwater — an essential ingredient for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short. 

Davis, whose property has been in his family since 1953, says he’s never seen so much water moving around the basin.

The wolf’s mouth: An immigrant community in the shadow of an ICE internment facility

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Beyond these roadside signs, Chaparral appears as a few rows of mobile homes in a flat expanse of scrubland. But at night, when the stars come out over the desert and Chaparral is as dark as “the wolf’s mouth,” as one woman put it, it’s quickly apparent that the homes extend all the way to the horizon, dotting the landscape with a faint glow every few hundred feet. 

Chaparral is New Mexico’s largest colonia, one of the many unincorporated communities in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, all characterized by high rates of poverty and lack of access to basic public services. It is only 10 minutes past the furthest northeastern reaches of El Paso, but it feels a galaxy away from the city’s nearby suburbs, with their two-car driveways and faux-stucco houses. 

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission.

Lujan Grisham on seclusion and restraint in Albuquerque schools: ‘It’s appalling’

SANTA FE — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is two weeks away from her second legislative session, and she’s got a lot more on her mind than passing a budget. In a wide-ranging conversation with Searchlight New Mexico on Jan. 6, the governor previewed her plans to reduce violent crime through new public safety legislation. She addressed the need for a diverse economy that’s less dependent on oil and gas revenues. This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission.

Stolen and erased

Eva was found at dusk one Tuesday in late December 2016, standing in a parking lot in northeast Albuquerque. The 15-year-old Navajo girl had been missing more than two weeks when her grandmother got a call from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s office — saying her silver Ford truck had been recovered.  “I don’t care about the truck, what about my granddaughter?” Heidi demanded. 

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. She drove three hours, from her house outside Gallup to Albuquerque, and arrived a few minutes after 1 a.m. to see Eva emerge from the juvenile holding area, quiet and hunched, her dark brown eyes fixed on the floor. She weighed 94 pounds.