The Children Youth and Families Department Policy Advisory Council met for the first time inside the New Mexico State Capitol on Thursday, May 4, 2023. (Photo by Liam DeBonis for Source NM)
New Mexico’s state child welfare agency, which consistently faces questions about transparency, has created an advisory panel that will hold some of its meetings behind closed doors as part of a systematic review of the organization and the services it provides to foster children.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham created the Children Youth and Families Department Policy Advisory Council via executive order in February. The seven-member Council met publicly for the first time on Thursday.
The governor’s order requires a yearly “services audit” of CYFD from an out-of-state independent consulting firm.
CYFD Secretary Teresa Casados said New Mexico last fall joined the National Partnership for Child Safety, a coalition of state agencies supported by Casey Family Programs and the Center for Innovation in Population Health at the University of Kentucky.
Casados, just weeks into the job as secretary, said the group will come to New Mexico in June to work with CYFD “to really look at the department, and look at the organization, to see how things are moving, and then make recommendations on what needs to be fixed.”
Casados said they “are also engaging with us on a deeper audit of our system.”
It is not clear if the National Partnership will do the audit themselves, Casados said, but “they have done that in other states.”
“A lot of that work will be done with the Advisory Council,” Casados said during the meeting on Thursday. “They’ll be meeting consistently to talk about those ideas.”
Those meetings will be held behind closed doors, Casados said, because the nature of the panel insulates it from Robert’s Rules of Order. Having private meetings “gives the Council time to do the work that they need to do,” Casados said.
The New Mexico Attorney General’s Office found a similar advisory panel created by the Legislature in 2019, the Child Protective Services Task Force, was not subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act.
A bill which would have brought more transparency to the department died in the House Judiciary Committee in the most recent legislative session without any vote by either the House or Senate. A lawsuit is asking a federal judge to nullify the state law preventing public discussion of abuse and neglect in the department.
Searchlight New Mexico found CYFD used an encrypted text messaging app which automatically deleted official communications, which led to the resignation of the secretary who oversaw the department at the time.
The newly created Council seems similar to the previous Task Force, along with another committee created by former CYFD secretary Barbara Vigil in 2022.
Asked how the Council is different from previous advisory panels, Vigil, who abruptly left her post in April to become a member of the Council, said the backgrounds of its individual members are “providing perspective from a lot of different realms.”
“I think what’s different is that approach, and we are hopeful that, with the input that we receive, that we can consider that we can make significant and substantive changes to the agency that’s so critical to New Mexico going forward, sooner rather than later,” Vigil said.
Who sits on the Council?
- Former CYFD secretary and former New Mexico Supreme Court justice Barbara Vigil
- Judge Catherine Begaye (Diné), presiding children’s court judge for the Second Judicial District
- Brennan Bowman, middle school counselor with Albuquerque Public Schools and CEO of “With a Village”
- Rick Quevedo, founding CEO of Desert View Family Counseling Services in Farmington
- Arika Sanchez, policy and advocacy director for NMCAN
- Kenneth Stowe, curriculum and instruction division director for New Mexico Public Education Department
- Barbara Yehl, director of Lighthouse Foster & Adoption in Roswell
Casados said the two priorities for the Council will be to recruit and retain more agency staff and foster families.
Casados said the department will change its pay structure to try to prevent state workers from moving to another state agency offering better pay. She expects the Council to review a “robust recruitment plan” the state commissioned from an unnamed local marketing firm last year.
“We’re focused on making sure that we have ample placement options for kids, so that we don’t end up with kids in office stays, or not knowing where we’re gonna put them overnight,” Casados said. “There has to be a place for kids to go.”
Casados said those priorities are not a direction for the Council but rather a suggestion from the Lujan Grisham administration. The members of the Council will be able to bring in whoever they like to work on improving the agency, Casados said.
Casados said she expects the recommendations made by the Council to result in some kind of legislation to be presented to New Mexico lawmakers.
There is no end date spelled out in the executive order for the Council to make recommendations, Casados said. She said there will be “a continuous workflow” and public meetings where new information will come out.
Lujan Grisham’s order also requires the creation of a grievance system “to allow families to engage in meaningful dialogue with CYFD and ensure that all clients are receiving the care they need.”
Casados said state officials are looking at other unnamed states and have been hosting public meetings to gather input about what the grievance system would be and how it would work.
Casados said the grievance system will be “very visible” on a public website tied to the Council. The website is currently in development, said state spokesperson Jodi McGinnis Porter. Neither McGinnis Porter nor Casados gave a timeline for when the site will go live.
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