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.
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 (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.
On controversial abortion bills, Democratic legislators have had a tendency this year to hear prolonged, passionate testimonies and debates—then quickly vote to table the bills. That happened again Thursday afternoon, when the House Consumer & Public Affairs Committee devoted two hours to a controversial bill on what anti-abortion advocates call “born alive” infants. Several people testified in both support and opposition to the bill. Soon, Reps. Bob Wooley and Monica Youngblood, Republicans from Roswell and Albuquerque, respectively, asked lengthy questions of the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington.
On Tuesday a bill to fund early childhood education programs with two new taxes on energy and electricity producers failed to make it out of committee. During the Senate Conservation Committee meeting, Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, sought support for a bill that would create an early childhood education fund paid for by a one-hundredth percent oil and gas energy surtax and a one cent per kilowatt hour tax on electricity produced in New Mexico. The two revenue sources would generate more than $320 million annually, according to the fiscal impact report for Senate Bill 288. Once the meeting was opened for public comments, not one audience member spoke in support of the bill. But more than a dozen lobbyists and representatives of the oil and gas industry and utilities like PNM, El Paso Electric, Xcel Energy and Tri-State Generation and Transmission opposed it.
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.
By the second day of the special session, the Senate has gone home, the House is setting themselves up to start looking at budget fixes and everyone is pointing fingers and placing blame. It seems both Democrats and Republicans are using similar arguments to discredit the other side. House Majority Leader Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, told reporters that he was disappointed to find out that the Senate adjourned before hearing any of the House Republican’s crime bills. “It shows an incredible disservice to the people of the state of New Mexico, as well as just a lack of basic dignity that the Senate would close up shop and go home,” Gentry said. Both Senate and House Democrats have continually criticized Gov. Susana MArtinez and Republican lawmakers for pushing criminal penalty increases and reinstating the death penalty during the special session, which is often used to fix state money problems.
Earlier in the day, the House debated a bill that would expand the law commonly known as Baby Brianna’s Law.