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.
The New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department saw its first positive case of COVID-19 in one of its youth detention centers Thursday, according to a spokesman.
Charlie Moore-Pabst with CYFD confirmed with NM Political Report Friday that a staff member at the Youth Diagnostic and Development Center in Albuquerque tested positive for the disease.
Related: DOH: 162 new cases of COVID-19, six additional deaths
Moore-Pabst said all youth in the facility and all but a handful of staff members were tested immediately after the staff member’s test results came back.
“Within 24 hours, almost all staff and all young people at the facility where the staff member worked have been tested for COVID,” Moore-Pabst said in a statement. “Additional state run juvenile justice facilities are also being tested as a precautionary measure.”
He also said that the state’s Department of Health has been working with CYFD to maintain plans to “prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in our juvenile justice state-run facilities.”
Moore-Pabst said staff at CYFD facilities are wearing masks and both youth and staff undergo temperature checks.
According to Moore-Pabst, Camino Nuevo is a smaller facility that houses youth who have committed violent offenses. Correction: After publication, CYFD informed NM Political Report the employee who tested positive is an employee at the Youth Diagnostic and Development Center.
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.
The state announced that uninsured childcare workers who test positive for COVID-19 will be able to enroll in a state insurance plan during the public health emergency. Uninsured early childcare workers and their families will be able to enroll in New Mexico Medical Insurance Pool (NMMIP), the state’s high-risk pool, during the public health emergency if they or their family members test positive to COVID-19, a type of coronavirus. The state will pay the premiums, according to the statement. Under emergency rules issued by the Superintendent of Insurance, deductibles and copayments are also waived for treatment of COVID-19, influenza and pneumonia through NMMIP. This new rule will apply to all childcare workers and their immediate family members who test positive regardless of income or immigration status, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in the statement.
The state’s message that childcare centers in New Mexico should remain open while everyone else is encouraged to stay home is the wrong message, say some early childcare educators. The state has asked early childcare centers to stay open while public schools are closed and to accept more children by loosening regulations. But at the same time, the state is encouraging businesses to rely on remote workers and is encouraging the public to limit itself to gatherings of no more than 100 people. President Donald Trump said Monday that the public should not gather in groups of more than 10. Related: State offers assistance to families and child care providers during emergency
According to a state report, 85.5 percent of early childcare workers are women and 55.1 percent identify as Latina or Hispanic.
Two state agencies are providing child care assistance to parents who need help during the coronavirus pandemic. The Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) and the Early Childhood Education and Care Department (ECECD) made changes to the state’s early childhood policies in response to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public health emergency declaration due to the spread of COVID-19, a type of coronavirus. The state is encouraging families to stay home as much as possible during the global pandemic. But if families need assistance with childcare during the public health emergency, the state has made changes to offer assistance. The state is also offering various forms of assistance to child care providers to encourage them to stay open during this time of crisis.