The state is launching a Safe Sleep New Mexico campaign to share information with new parents and caregivers about safe sleeping practices for newborns to reduce the number of Sudden Unexpected Infant Death. With 43 babies who died in 2021 because of SUID, the syndrome accounted for nearly 20 percent of infant deaths in New Mexico in 2021. The deaths are often caused by accidental suffocation due to unsafe sleep practices, such as babies sleeping on their stomachs, sharing an adult bed, sleeping on the couch or in a car seat with soft toys or bedding. The Safe Sleep New Mexico campaign will try to educate the public through outreach to expand community-based promotion of safe sleep practices and promote resources to improve safe sleep environments. Multiple state agencies coordinated to develop the campaign along with numerous community partners.
One evening last December, a 14-year-old foster youth sexually assaulted a child four years younger than himself in the Albuquerque office of New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department. It happened, according to police, in a bathroom near the facility’s outdoor playground, as a CYFD supervisor was chatting on a personal phone call. The incident was reported to State Police about an hour later, when a CYFD worker dialed 911. “Something sexual happened” between two children, she told the dispatcher. Though the 10-year-old was plainly traumatized, CYFD began making arrangements to transfer him to a youth homeless shelter in Santa Fe.
New Mexico has 360 more repeat child maltreatment cases annually than the national average. The interim Legislative Finance Committee heard a presentation by New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department Acting Secretary Teresa Casados on the child protective services division within CYFD on Tuesday. The LFC and CYFD provided a report on repeat child maltreatment. New Mexico is higher than the national average. Casados said one goal of the department is to change that.
As part of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s 2023 executive order to transform the Children, Youth and Families Department, the department rolled out a new dashboard during a press conference on Tuesday. The dashboard can be found on CYFD’s new website, https://www.togetherwethrivenm.org/. It is one way the department is trying to be more accountable. Lujan Grisham issued an executive order earlier this year to make systemic change to an agency that has been rocked by allegations of neglect to abuse under its watch in recent years. Earlier this month, a new CYFD advisory council met with members of the press and the public to discuss how the council and the department would meet the mandates of the executive order.
The Children, Youth and Family Department Advisory Council met with the public and press on Thursday to highlight how the department and the council intend to meet the mandates of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s executive order intended to improve the department. In her February executive order, Lujan Grisham called CYFD a “system that is fundamentally broken.” After scandals rocked the department in recent years, Lujan Grisham named retired New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Vigil to head the department in 2021. But Vigil stepped down this spring after repeated allegations came to light of significant child abuse under CYFD’s watch. Vigil is now on the advisory council along with a group of five others and CYFD Interim Secretary Teresa Casados, who is Lujan Grisham’s chief operating officer. Casados is filling that role while the department conducts a national search to replace Vigil.
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.
The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department has fired two high-level employees who raised concerns about the agency’s practice of encrypting and summarily destroying records. A Searchlight New Mexico investigation has found that over the past year, the CYFD used the secure text messaging app Signal to discuss a wide range of official business, including the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the care of children in state custody and concerns about private contractors. Department leadership then set many of those communications to automatically delete, rendering them forever inaccessible to attorneys, members of the public and journalists. Searchlight also found that the Office of the Governor and the state’s Department of Information Technology supported the systematic deletion of messages, according to emails and policy guidance obtained through an Inspection of Public Records Act (IPRA) request. Legal experts warn that it is likely to impede investigations into the agency, cripple the ability of attorneys to represent children in state custody, and could violate the New Mexico Public Records Act’s rules on retention of documents.
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.
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.