Governor announces plan to overhaul ‘dysfunctional’ child welfare agency

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a number of initiatives Thursday to address long-standing challenges with one of the state’s most problematic agencies: the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department. “We are embracing as professionals that this department is dysfunctional,” Lujan Grisham said at a news conference at the state Capitol. 

The governor said New Mexico will contract an out-of-state legal firm to create annual independent audits of the child welfare agency; hire four new department leaders to provide more focused management; and recruit retired social workers to help ease caseloads that critics say overwhelm the agency. 

The department plans to launch a public data dashboard; though, information on specific cases will be sparse to avoid violating state and federal confidentiality laws, Lujan Grisham said. She also envisions a new advisory council with members versed in child welfare matters to make recommendations on improvements to services. Lujan Grisham signed an executive order calling for the changes. Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, announced at the news conference she also introduced House Bill 461 to mirror the governor’s plan in state statute.

Bill to make obtaining orders of protection easier passes Senate committee

A bill that will make orders of protection easier for survivors to obtain passed the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee with no opposition. SB 18, Rename Family Violence Act, cleared the committee on an 8-0 vote. It will head to the Senate Judiciary Committee next. SB 18, sponsored by state Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, significantly rewrites the Family Violence Protection Act to improve victims’ ability to request an order of protection and to expand the list of reasons an order can be obtained. If the bill becomes law a survivor will be able to request an order for protection in the event of kidnapping, false imprisonment, interference with communication, threats to disclose immigration status, harm or threats to harm animals to intimidate, threaten or harass a person and unauthorized distribution of sensitive images.

High-level officials accuse CYFD of retaliation

A husband and wife who blew the whistle on the state’s destruction of official records have filed a lawsuit against the New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department, claiming they were fired from their jobs in retaliation. 

The lawsuit was jointly filed Tuesday by Cliff W. Gilmore, the former head of the CYFD’s Public Information Office, and his wife, Debra Gilmore, an attorney who led the agency’s newly formed Office of Children’s Rights. The suit, filed in New Mexico’s First Judicial Court, alleges that CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock and Deputy Secretary Terry Locke violated the state Whistleblower Protection Act by firing them for raising ethical concerns about a range of issues within the department. 

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. “When we asked questions and offered perspectives [about CYFD policies], we were shut down and retaliated against,” Cliff Gilmore told Searchlight New Mexico. 

“At the end of the day, my biggest concern is that children and families are being harmed by these practices,” Debra Gilmore added. The CYFD has been under intense scrutiny in the wake of a report in April by Searchlight New Mexico, revealing that the agency used the encrypted messaging app Signal to communicate on a wide range of official state business — and then set those communications to automatically delete. 

Legal experts say the practice likely violates open records laws and could hamper the ability of attorneys to represent children in state custody. New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas has directed his office to review the CYFD’s use of Signal, saying it is “highly concerning that public employees are potentially deleting public information without a thorough legal process.”

Prior to their firing on May 6, both Cliff and Debra Gilmore had repeatedly raised concerns within the CYFD about the practice, according to the lawsuit. 

Cliff Gilmore is a Marine veteran whose previous experience included work as a communications officer with the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Bill to keep Native children within their community receives bipartisan support

A bill to keep Native children within their tribe or pueblo when the state separates them from their parents passed the House State Government and Indian Affairs Committee unanimously on Monday. Sponsored by state Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque and of the Acoma Pueblo, HB 209 has overwhelming support from various organizations and Tribal and pueblo governments in the state. 

If it becomes law, the bill would codify the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which was passed in the 1970s but is poorly enforced, according to experts. The bill would guide the state Children, Youth and Families Department to notify tribes and pueblos when a child removal occurs and to work with the Tribal community to place a Native child with extended family or friends or foster families within their own sovereign nation. Related: Bill to codify the federal Indian Child Welfare Act into state law an important step, say advocates

Keeping a Native child within the world of their language, culture and traditions helps with the healing process, advocates of the bill have said. “They have the potential to lose their language, culture and ties to their family.

CYFD part of ‘groundbreaking’ collaborative settlement

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.

More parents will get help with child care under CYFD proposal

More New Mexico families will qualify for child care assistance without being wait-listed, and could stay longer on the program under proposed rules posted Monday by the Children Youth and Families Department. Under current eligibility limits put in place in the wake of a lawsuit against CYFD, families can qualify and stay on the child care program if they make less than two times the federal poverty level, but not one dollar more. The proposal would take the exit point up to 250% of the poverty level. 

To put the changes in perspective, a single mother with two children could make up to $42,660 per year and qualify, and could keep getting child care assistance with increasing co-pays until she earned $53,325. About 90 percent of child care assistance recipients are single-parent households. “It’s just our new approach and our plan to make New Mexico a safe place to be a child,” Charlie Moore-Pabst, a spokesman for CYFD, told New Mexico in Depth.

On her watch: Governor-driven understaffing keeps N.M.’s kids at risk

The Roundhouse, January 2011: Flanked by colorful bouquets, a pink and white corsage pinned to her dark blue suit, Gov. Susana Martinez invoked the blossoming of a new era for New Mexico in her first State of the State address. She was the nation’s first Latina governor, soon to be named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people. She had a plan for New Mexico and intended to execute it with a prosecutor’s precision. Her message: New Mexico was in a state of financial crisis. “No more shell games,” she announced to applause.

Lawsuit: New Mexico is wrongly denying child care benefits

Five New Mexico residents are suing the Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD), claiming the state is effectively cheating eligible low-income families out of money to pay for child care. According to the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in First Judicial District court in Santa Fe by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (CLP), CYFD is handing out child care assistance based on secretly formulated rules without clearly defined eligibility requirements, in violation of the state constitution. CLP brought the suit on behalf of five residents whose applications for child care assistance were denied. Olé, an Albuquerque-based community organizing group, is also a plaintiff. The complaint names Secretary Monique Jacobson, in her official capacity, as defendant.

Many grandparents raising kids locked out of state aid

ALBUQUERQUE — Joan Marentes knew her career in the Albuquerque Police Department was over the moment a state worker said she was ineligible for public assistance. Assigned to the Crimes Against Children Unit, Marentes was a decorated detective, named Officer of the Year in 2009 for her work keeping kids out of harm’s way. Often those same kids ended up placed in the care of grandparents or other relatives. Now, in an ironic twist, she had taken emergency custody of her own granddaughter after learning the child was being abused by her  parents. Like hundreds of other grandparents, Marentes trusted that the state would help her deal with the sudden financial stress of taking in a child.