Sunday, May 28, 2023

Commentary: New Mexico Can't Run CYFD Any Longer

It's time for feds to takeover child welfare agency


With the announcement of Secretary Barbara Vigil’s resignation last week, I heard a death knell for the Child, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) as we know it.

We all know it doesn’t work in its current form.

Child welfare was a major topic during the 2023 legislature. 60 child welfare bills were introduced. 51 did not pass. Some say, this was because of pressure from the governor.

The most significant legislation that did pass, the creation of a civil rights division in the attorney general’s office to investigate, intervene in, and pursue civil actions in the case of civil rights violations on the part of state agencies, was vetoed.

And again, legislation that would create an independent ombudsman office to investigate complaints went absolutely nowhere.

It is very clear that this administration is unwilling to accept any external interference or accountability for CYFD.

Yet the week after Governor Lujan Grisham vetoed the Civil Rights Division Act, her second (or fourth, if you count two interim secretaries) CYFD secretary resigned, citing “unrelenting factors” that affect New Mexico’s most vulnerable children.

Does she mean endemic poverty and drug abuse, or a systematically dysfunctional CYFD?

Whichever it is, a former state Supreme Court chief justice, with specific and extensive experience in child welfare and juvenile justice, is throwing in the towel. That’s how bad it is.

The legislature can’t fix CYFD. And now the attorney general can’t fix CYFD. This governor is so far unable (unwilling?) to fix CYFD, although a nationwide search for a new secretary has been announced.

The last nationwide search resulted in a secretary who left amidst a whistleblower scandal, clear ethics violations and a lawsuit.

It’s time for federal receivership.

It’s not a simple process, but there is precedent in other jurisdictions. Advocates would have to assemble a case in federal court for CYFD to be taken out of state control and under federal receivership. If the plaintiffs prevailed, a federal receiver would be appointed to oversee CYFD.

If that sounds just like more government bureaucracy to you – here are some statistics from the District of Columbia’s six years of federal receivership:

Adoptions before: 60 per year

Adoptions after: 250 per year

Federal revenue reimbursement before: $8 million/year

Federal revenue reimbursement after: $50 million/year

Overcrowding before: 114 children placed in overcrowded foster homes

Overcrowding after: 39 children placed in overcrowded foster homes (nothing about office floors)

Staffing before: 95 social workers

Staffing after: 259 social workers

Obviously, this will be opposed by many, the administration first and foremost. CYFD is already operating under a class action court order. The Kevin S. settlement from 2020 sets out benchmarks not unlike a federal receivership, they might say.

Except CYFD is only meeting nine of the 51 terms mandated by the settlement, according to the independent monitors charged with tracking compliance with the settlement.

It just isn’t enough.

We don’t get to see real numbers out of CYFD, the administration makes sure of that, but what we get from the news and independent reports like those from the Kevin S. monitors tell the story:

· Kids with mental health or behavioral problems are placed in shelters that have no ability to cope with them. Over 1,100 calls to 911 were made by shelters housing CYFD clients between 2019 and 2022 seeking help for those children. CYFD did not disclose the children’s background before placing the children (Searchlight NM/ProPublica).

· Law enforcement and CYFD can make the most shocking discoveries and surviving children are not removed from the home. The most recent case involves a dead infant found to have meth in his system last year, as did the other children in the home. The children were not removed from the home, and the mother not charged in the death of the infant, even after one of the surviving children came to school smelling of pot last month. The children were removed for a 48-hour hold earlier this month, and then returned. The mother was finally charged in the death of the infant last month. (Albuquerque Journal)

· For the last three years that data is available, between 11-13% of children in CYFD custody have had one placement outside a licensed foster home. The worst of these options is staying in a CYFD office. There were 85 children placed in CYFD offices for a total of 188 nights in 2021. Only 15 of these placements were reviewed by the Protective Services Division Director or CYFD Secretary as required by the Kevin S. settlement (Kevin S. vs. Blalock Co-Neutrals Annual Report 2021).

· CYFD is lagging in compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Only one of seven ICWA requirements set forth in the Kevin S. settlement is being met (Kevin S. vs. Blalock Co-Neutrals Annual Report 2021).

If a class action lawsuit with independent monitors won’t bring CYFD into compliance, it’s time to look at the next option. The most innocent and vulnerable lives depend on it.

Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and former Navy officer. She appears regularly as a panelist on NM PBS and is a frequent guest on News Radio KKOB. A Republican, she lives amicably with her Democratic husband north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at


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