Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

CYFD must stop skirting transparency laws

In 2021, two employees of the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department revealed it was using a secure text messaging app that automatically deleted all of their messages, in clear violation of the state’s public records law.

Then-CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock responded by firing the employees, Clifford and Debra Gilmore, while defending the app as being necessary to protect the privacy of children in the CYFD system. Since then, the state has paid a $650,000 settlement to the Gilmores for damages and back pay, Blalock stepped down and the Attorney General’s Office has started an investigation into use of the app, which was also used by officials in the Governor’s Office.

CYFD has stopped using the app, but its officials are still using the same excuse to violate the public records law.

A recent report by the Legislative Finance Committee, which is responsible for tracking and accounting for all state appropriations, found that state money being paid in out-of-court settlements is not being reported on the Sunshine Portal, which allows state residents to see how our tax money is being spent.

More than $3 million went unreported just last year, involving some of the most costly settlements, including $1.5 million paid in 2022 in the case of a brother and sister who had suffered severe abuse while in foster care and $985,000 paid to two brothers who were allegedly sexually abused while in foster care.

Once again, CYFD officials say those settlements are being kept private to protect the children.

While reporting to the Sunshine Portal is voluntary, settlements of more than $1,000 must be reported to the state’s Risk Management Division. Those reports ended in 2019.

There are 22 different Cabinet-level departments serving the governor, covering everything from fishing to information technology. None of them have a more difficult or important mission than the Children, Youth and Families Department.

The level of childhood abuse and neglect in New Mexico is shameful. CYFD investigates about 39,000 reports of abuse and neglect each year, according to a department report. Typically, between 5,000 and 9,000 reports are substantiated each year.

There are about 2,500 children in the state’s foster care system. About a quarter of them were taken into the system after having been victims of abuse or neglect. Far too often, those cases have resulted in death. There were 63 children who died at the hands of their abusers in the years 2016 to 2020, according to federal statistics.

CYFD leaders under both Democratic and Republican governors have struggled to adequately address the problem. But the solution is not to hide those challenges from the public.

Yes, of course, personal information about children in the system must be protected. But that can be accomplished without ignoring state laws on government transparency.

Walt Rubel is the former opinion page editor of the Las Cruces Sun-News. He lives in Las Cruces, and can be reached at:

[email protected]

 
 
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