5/13/2022

This time last year, without primary campaign ads blasting faux scandals across our televisions, we were caught up by a shocking political story that really happened: Everyone working at the Children, Youth and Families had been directed to auto-delete text messages on state-issued phones as a matter of policy.

We found out when a wife and husband recruited from out of state to take senior roles at the troubled agency, Debra and Cliff Gilmore, took the story public after being summarily fired for expressing concern over the text message policy, a multi-million-dollar no-bid software contract and other apparent ethics violations.

What's happening now? I checked in with Cliff Gilmore and tracked through Searchlight New Mexico's coverage of the scandal and also the CYFD website to get a pulse on CYFD in mid-2022.

First, in a move that surprised few of us, there has been a regime change (NM government crisis management 101: Request resignations until the media go away). I offer that the depth of resignations, and the quality of the new cabinet secretary, are surprising.

Secretary Brian Blalock stepped down in August of last year. I believe the only reason he lasted three months after the scandal broke is that the governor wanted to have a named replacement. And she found a solid one, former New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil. I have to believe that finding anyone with any sort of diploma to take the helm of CYFD was a herculean effort, much less a former state supreme court justice.

But there has been more turnover at CYFD: the deputy secretary is gone; as is the general counsel; and the director of protective services (i.e., the perennially nightmarish foster care system in our state).

In other developments, Governor Lujan Grisham has gone on the record criticizing the use of the Signal app for text messaging at CYFD and that practice has ended. State Auditor Brian Colón, running for attorney general, found that the agency made an inappropriate no-bid contract award to Binti for a software system to manage all the agency's programs. The state Ethics Commission has scheduled a hearing for an ethics complaint filed against the department by the Gilmores and Doug and Jill Michel (the Michels have fostered more than two dozen children).

And the Gilmores are taking CYFD to court. They filed a lawsuit last fall which will likely be heard in early 2023. Columnist's note with no legal basis whatsoever: Revenge firing of nationally acclaimed children's advocacy attorney and a former public affairs chief for the Joint Staff is probably going to end badly. Just saying.

There were more wins for the fight for transparency at CYFD: Foster parent Doug Michel and Searchlight NM reporter Ed Williams were recipients of the 2021 William S. Dixon First Amendment Freedom Awards bestowed by the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. Michel was recognized for his tireless work to break into the secret policies of CYFD, filing more than 300 records requests regarding foster parent requirements and regulations. Williams broke the story of the Signal app use at CYFD.

There were also heartbreaking losses. Once again, legislation that would establish an independent office to adjudicate complaints against CYFD failed to make it to a final vote. Once again, we see news stories about children sleeping on the floors of caseworkers' offices because there is no overnight facility for teens in crisis and not enough foster homes. Once again, we hear news coverage that child caseworkers' caseloads here are twice that of those in other states, yet they are among the lowest paid.

And that's just the "administrivia," as an Army friend of mine likes to call it. That's bad enough. Then there are the children dying. Like the 16-year-old girl brought dead to UNM Hospital last week by her 32-year-old mother with wounds showing where insects were eating her flesh. And the guilty plea just days later in the 2019 death of 4-year-old James Dunklee Cruz, whose attorneys say that lapel video shows that CYFD could have intervened two months before his death.

Politics and policy aside, innocent lives are at stake every day at CYFD. We are fortunate that people like the Gilmores, Michels and Williams don't just remember that but stick their necks out for that mission. We're lucky that talented people like Secretary Vigil and her new deputy are willing to bring their talents and professional credentials to the monumental task of righting this long-dysfunctional agency.

Because they simply must succeed in these pursuits.

May is National Foster Care Month. To learn more about foster parenting, resources for foster parents, or how to begin the process to become a foster parent, visit nmchildfirst.org.

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 news.ind.merritt@gmail.com.

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