Thursday, September 28, 2023

Triple Spaced Again: Tragedies continue at CYFD


How has New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department gotten it so tragically wrong so many times? Don’t you wonder?

A recent special report by KOAT television highlighted the story of four-year-old James Dunklee Cruz, beaten to death by his mother’s male roommate after numerous previous incidents had been documented. He had been sent back to his mother’s home by CYFD multiple times, even though there were loving relatives who wanted to take him. Those who speak for CYFD have not answered the simple question: Why did they send him back?

A recent news report said Rep. Gail Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, became so frustrated at a committee hearing that CYFD staff could not answer simple statistical questions that she walked out of the meeting.

Apparently the requirement to keep cases confidential has been followed to the extreme by CYFD. Armstrong told me confidentiality was the reason given for an incident in which CYFD officials deleted text messages.

Writing about CYFD a few months ago, I highlighted the priority given to keeping families together. Public policy – not just in New Mexico – places a high value on keeping children with parents because evidence shows children are deeply traumatized by being removed from their parents. But what we seem not to know, because nobody’s answering the question, is where CYFD draws the line between leaving the child with an incompetent parent and determining that in a particular case the risk is too great.

In other words, what the heck is CYFD’s policy?

New Mexico law says the safety and health of the child come first.

Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, says the language of the state Children’s Code is clear – and it looks clear to me – but Matthews keeps hearing that other people either are confused or think family preservation has higher priority. Regardless, we don’t know what CYFD believes because nobody will say.

The annotation for a 1987 appellate case says, “Best interests of children is paramount consideration. Parents do not have an absolute right to their children, for any right is secondary to the best interests and welfare of the children.”

Within the child welfare profession, it is understood that when a child is left with problem parents, social services involvement must be intensive; that could mean daily visits by a social worker. New Mexico has a few private nonprofit organizations that provide a high level of support for clients, but they all have limited capacity. If CYFD has been providing the necessary degree of intervention, it’s another part of the story that is not being disclosed. But that’s very unlikely; we know there is not nearly enough professional staff.

In several of our dreadfully tragic cases, the perpetrator was a live-in boyfriend who was not the child’s father. That, to point out the obvious, is not family unification. That person is not a family member. If the boyfriend – or any household member, for that matter – has behaved badly toward a small child, does CYFD have the authority to require that he (or she) be barred from the household as a condition of keeping the child?

Who is family anyway? In the Children’s Code I could not find a definition of the word “family.” James Cruz’s aunt and grandfather looked like they might qualify as family. Maybe we need a definition in the statute.

Legislators have been working on this issue for several years. The plan proposed in our recent legislative session – an independent Office of Child Advocate located outside CYFD – seems like the best available next step toward a solution. The office would have to be empowered to have full access to confidential files. The bill to create that office almost made it through the legislature this year.

It is past time for a special or extraordinary legislative session to get this under control.

Contact Merilee Dannemann through


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