Over the last 10 years, New Mexico children have been subject to the most heinous acts of depravity that have shocked the conscious of its citizens that has resulted in deserved severe criticism of the NM Children Youth and Family’s Department.
In 2013 it was 9 year old Omaree Varela who was beaten to death by his stepfather a full 6 months after child abuse was reported to the Children Youth and Family’s Department and the Department did nothing to intervene. In 2016 it was 10 year old Victoria Martens who was raped and murdered and then dismembered and her body burned in a bathtub as an attempt to dispose of her body. In 2017 it was the torture-murder of 13 year old Jeremiah Valencia who was confined in a dog crate and tortured for weeks that left him hobbling on a cane with broken ribs and numerous other injuries. In 2019 it was murder of 4 year old James Dunklee Cruz who had suffered severe physical abuse all 4 years of his life. In 2021 it was the fentanyl death of 12 year old Brent Sullivan. In February, a 10-year-old foster child was sexually assaulted by a 14-year-old foster youth in a bathroom of CYFD’s main office building in Albuquerque.
These 5 children, and many more not making the news, suffered abuse, injuries and death at the hands of those who were supposed to care for and protect them. Each time the deaths made it into the news with reports of the horrendous abuse, law enforcement and the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD), and other agencies promised to do better to keep this from happening again, but it keeps on happening.
New Mexico State Senator Joeseph Cervantes, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said during a recent committee hearing on CYFD reform legislation:
“I don’t have a nice way to say this any more. … I’m beyond frustrated. … We’re telling CYFD to get off their ass.”
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
Saying enough is enough with the mismanagement of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD), the 2023 New Mexico Legislature has taken very aggressive action to demand more oversight of the CYFD Department. During the 2023 New Mexico Legislative session, more than 30 bills have been filed that would impact CYFD’s operations.
A few of the most notable bills that would impact CYFD operations include the following:
SENATE BILL 150 would require CYFD to conduct a family assessment when a newborn suffers from drug withdrawals and parents don’t comply with a hospital-issued plan of care.
SENATE BILL 107 gives CYFD up to three days, not two days, to file petitions in cases where the agency has taken custody of a child.
HOUSE BILL 434 would change self-care plans for newborns.
BILLS GETTING SIGNIFICANT TRACTION
Three bills that have gained significant traction in this year’s legislative session are House Bill 10 and House Bill 11 and Senate Bill 373. HB 10 and SB 373 are identical calling for the creation of an independent office to oversee CYFD.
House Bill 10 would relax some of the confidentiality restrictions in the Children’s Code, allowing CYFD’s Child Protective Services division to disclose more information to more entities. The bill has the support CYFD and child advocacy groups. The House Health and Human Services Committee voted to approve it by unanimous vote. HB 10 would greatly expand information that can be released about child abuses cases resulting in death or where a child has almost died. The information that could be released would include the child’s cause of death, where the child was living at the time and all prior reports of abuse or neglect made to CYFD. House Bill 10 will also allows for more information to be given to a foster parent, prospective foster parent, grandparent, sibling or relative being considered for placement of the child.
House Bill 10 also requires that CYFD create a portal on its website disclosing mandated reports and basic data such as the number of fatalities or near fatalities of children in CYFD custody and the number of abuse and neglect complaints that lead to investigations.
House Bill 10 sponsor Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, had this to say about the legislation:
“When a child who is alleged to have been neglected or abused dies, the public asks ‘how could this have happened,’ and, unfortunately, almost always there have been no public answers. …This is truly a sea change in the role of the agency in helping people understand in providing answers to important questions when we have children who are hurt or die when in custody of the department.”
HOUSE BILL 11 AND SENATE BILL 373
House Bill 11 and Senate Bill 373 are identical and both create the Office of The Child Advocate that will result in aggressive legal oversight for CYFD. The function of the outside office would be to oversee CYFD and investigate complaints, order changes and prosecute if necessary. The Attorney General will be in charge of the oversight office. The new office would operate an electronic portal and telephone line to accept complaints, investigate and attempt to resolve complaints, and evaluate CYFD policies and procedures.
On March 8, both bills passed their respective chambers. The state House voted 56-9 in favor of House Bill 11 and the Senate passed Senate Bill 373 on a 30-8 vote with both bills establishing an Office of the Child Advocate within the state Attorney General’s Office. Last year a similar bill passed the House but died in a Senate committee.
Lawmakers they took a different approach this year and are hopeful one of the bills in fact be enacted. If either bill passes, it will make New Mexico the 44th state with an ombudsman-like office for its child-welfare system. Maralyn Beck with New Mexico Child First Network said this:
“This is our fifth year introducing this bill and it’s just so important. 43 other states have a similar office, and Idaho and Louisiana are attempting to introduce it as well. So this is a national best practice.”
Albuquerque State House Representative Marian Matthews, co-sponsor of the House bill 11, said the Legislature should seize the chance in the final days of this year’s session to strengthen oversight and operations of the CYFD. Mathews said this:
“We really have an opportunity this session to make some substantial changes in the laws that govern CYFD and those changes I believe will make it a more effective and responsive agency.”
Democrat State Representative Tara Jaramillo said this:
“This year we did a concerted effort to work with the department and to see what their concerns were. Being heard is important. They heard us as well. So that may have been one of the changes or it may just be time.”
Republican Sen. Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte urged her colleagues to pass their version of the measure, Senate Bill 373 and said:
“We have a crisis going on in New Mexico. .. We’re seeing the most horrific cases of child abuse in the nation. … If [the Attorney General] is committed to pushing back against CYFD to make sure that our vulnerable children are protected, we want to work with him, someone who is passionate, who will do the job and will provide the oversight that CYFD has failed at for so long. ”
Republican New Mexico state Senator David Gallegos said this:
“I would love to be invited when the governor signs this because I’ve been fighting this for years, we just need to make sure that our children are our priority and not the adults in the room.”
The House and Senate must sign off on identical legislation to grant final approval to a bill. One chamber or the other must approve the other’s CYFD bill to send it to the Governor.
GOVERNOR’S OPPOSITION TO HOUSE BILL 11 AND SENATE BILL 373
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has recognized and acknowledged CYFD is “dysfunctional.” Notwithstanding the Governor has been very resistant to any separate oversight of the CYFD proclaiming that would lead to a confrontational relationship between government offices and make it harder for CYFD to hire new social workers. In February, Lujan Grisham announced a “shakeup” of CYFD that entailed creating an “office of innovation” within the CYFD, a new advisory council and a national search to hire several new top agency officials. U,
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has already voiced her opposition to creating an outside office to oversee New Mexico’s troubled CFD called for in house bill 11 and senate bill 373 and has indicated she will veto the legislation. Notwithstanding the Governor’ opposition and the Governors Executive Order, legislators have advanced both House Bill 11 and Senate Bill 373. Although both bills have received wide bipartisan support, there are still 9 Democrats and Republicans opposed the legislation.
Mesilla Democrat Representative Micaela Lara Cadena opposed the House Bill 373 said the bill didn’t adequately reflect the importance of reuniting families and supporting mothers who have struggled. She said this:
“We have thrown away these mothers and these families where these kids came from.”
Links to quoated news sources are here:
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
One thing is for certain. The legislature and the general public have reach a level of frustration and downright hostility towards the Children Youth and Family Department that goes beyond the headlines, beyond the excuses and way beyond the empty promises to do better.
There is no denying it. The Children Youth and Families Department has been a failure for too many years in protecting the state’s children. The abuse and the resulting body count is a tragedy beyond belief. Too many of our most vulnerable children have fallen through the cracks, too many have died. The Governor is politically blind and foolish not to recognize the hostility.
Democrats in the 2023 legislative session hold a 45-25 majority in the House and a 27-15 in the Senate. The 60-day session ends March 18. Given the fact that there is a mere 6 days left in the 2023 legislative session, time is running out and is now of the essence. Now is the time for legislators to move aggressively forward and do something and mandate oversight of the CYFD.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham should sign the legislation immediately upon passage and get on board with stronger oversight of the Children Youth and Family Department. Too many children’s lives are at stake.