The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department will have a new department head in October, according to an announcement on Tuesday from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
According to the announcement, current Secretary Brian Blalock will step down this month “to support his wife’s pursuit of new work opportunities in California.”
Lujan Grisham appointed Blalock, who previously worked in California as a child welfare advocate. In a statement, Lujan Grisham said she was grateful to Blalock for his work with CYFD.
“When Brian agreed to take this role, my expectation and hope was that an expert set of eyes from outside of our system would be the right ingredient to help move the ball forward for New Mexico children and families,” she said. “He inherited an agency in disarray, with employees who had been sidelined and discouraged by an administration that did not prioritize or support this essential work. Under his leadership the agency has made progress and implemented productive policies.”
While personal reasons were cited as his reason for stepping down, the announcement comes on the heels of a series of stories from Searchlight New Mexico that highlighted reported shortcomings in the department. In April, it came to light that the department was using an encrypted messaging system for internal communication, which raised questions about transparency.
In late 2019, Jackson Williams, manager of a data unit at the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, raised his hand at a work meeting to ask about a massive computer system upgrade at the agency — one that could potentially cost $45 million over the next decade. Led by Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock, a San Francisco Bay Area transplant, the CYFD had selected a young California firm named Binti to lead the overhaul, apparently without considering any of the more than 20 other companies that expressed interest in the job. “Who is Binti, and why are they in charge of this project?” Williams asked.
Within days, Williams said he was taken off the modernization project. Soon after, Williams received a letter of reprimand from his supervisor asserting that he had violated the CYFD code of conduct by “going outside the chain of command” when he voiced his concerns about Binti. Williams later resigned from the department.
Since last year, the department tasked with overseeing foster care and child welfare in New Mexico has been encrypting and routinely deleting its communications, making much of its work essentially untraceable.
The leadership of the Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) has directed staff to use Signal, a secure communication app, and has set chats to automatically delete. In contrast to standard text messages or emails — which could be accessed by attorneys, reporters and members of the public under the state’s open records laws — messages sent via Signal are all but impossible to retrieve. Once deleted, virtually no trace of a Signal conversation remains, even on the company’s server. Attorneys and child advocates say the practice likely violates state open-records laws and could hamper any investigation into the department, which has been subject to lawsuits and massive criticism for its management of the foster-care system.
Records of employee communications have been central to journalists’ coverage of state agencies, including Searchlight New Mexico’s 2018 investigation of abuse within the foster care system.
“You can’t just encrypt and automatically delete communications between state employees,” said Melanie Majors, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. “That’s no different than putting official documents in the shredder at the end of every day.”
“Improper destruction of public records is a fourth-degree felony,” she added.
In an interview with Searchlight, CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock said the department began using Signal near the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A bill to protect Native American children so they can remain within their tribal communities and extended families will be pre-filed in the state Legislature in January, supporters say. The bill, still in draft form, will codify the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) into state law if it’s passed by the state Legislature next year. The U.S. Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act into law in 1978 but it is too often not enforced, according to experts working on the state law. Because of implicit bias against Native Americans, Native children are often removed from the home when a white child in an identical situation is not, said Donalyn Sarracino, director of Tribal Affairs for the Office of the Secretary for Child, Youth and Families Department and of the Pueblo of Acoma. She said this is a national problem and that, in some cases, the rate of removals of Native children from their families is sometimes four times higher than white children removals.
Earlier this year, the Albuquerque-based community activist group, the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), was in the planning stages of a juvenile justice campaign. The group’s director George Luján told NM Political Report that the planning stage quickly turned to an “emergency response campaign” to push state and local facilities to expeditiously release youth from juvenile facilities.
“So, instead of spending six months planning a campaign, we immediately launched into a set of recommendations to release young people and ensure their safety in those facilities,” Luján said.
SWOP has sent out numerous press releases and open letters to state officials asking them to release more youth from facilities, similar to pushes by advocates for a reduction in inmates in adult detention centers. Luján said the response from the state has been underwhelming, while the head of the Children Youth and Families Department has said they have released as many youth as they can while also considering the safety of the community.
The issue of juvenile facilities and who should be let out is a complicated one. Community activists argue that the youth who are still in state and county facilities not only face the risk of COVID-19, but are also facing emotional damage by being separated from their families. Those community activists also argue that too much money is being spent on committing youth to state facilities and not enough is being spent on prevention.
“We’ve had programs that have been successful,” Luján said.
New Mexico’s Children Youth and Families Department along with the state’s Human Services Department settled in federal court last week with a group of plaintiffs that include children in foster care. The suit alleged that the state’s foster program was severely lacking in services and resources.
Both CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock and the plaintiff’s legal team are touting the settlement agreement as the first of its kind as it incorporates changes to the system through a collaborative effort.
Kathryn Eidmann, with national pro bono law firm Public Counsel, is part of the plaintiff’s legal team. Eidmann called the collaborative settlement agreement “groundbreaking and the first of its kind in the nation.”
“[The agreement] centers the impact that trauma has on young people in the foster system and designs a system that is trauma responsive at every stage and every step of the process,” Eidmann said. “That truly does make New Mexico a national leader and a national model that other reformers in this area can look to as they think about reforming their own system to better meet the needs of children in care.”
The settlement stipulates a time table and benchmarks for changes to the state’s foster care program. For example, by the end of this year, the state will ensure no children are housed in hotels or state offices.
New Mexico’s Children Youth and Families Department (CYFD) perpetually faces criticism for intervening too late and overstepping boundaries. The department is often in the news, mostly after records show officials ignoring warning signs. Conversely, some families say they have faced intrusive home visits over school absences and one father was separated from his family and fired from his job for allegedly sexually abusing his daughter, even though prosecutors eventually said the evidence did not point to a crime. Now, CYFD is trying something new. With new department implemented risk assessment plan and response system soon-to-be implemented by law, CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock hopes to change how child welfare cases in New Mexico are opened, investigated and ultimately resolved.
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.