Millions in legal settlements now disclosed by the state

New Mexico’s General Services Department published settlements the state paid to minors and disabled adults recipients

By: - November 16, 2023 5:05 am

The state government building that houses the General Services Department, seen from West Cordova Road in Santa Fe. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

In 2023, New Mexico paid a $3.6 million settlement to people representing the two surviving siblings of Ariza Barreras, an 11-month-old who died in the care of a state foster parent in January 2018.

A wrongful death civil lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court alleged that employees for the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department failed to vet the foster parents and respite caretakers, violating the civil rights of all three children.

“Ariza died after being placed with state-licensed foster parents who never should have been authorized to care for children in the State’s custody and who CYFD failed properly to monitor,” the lawsuit stated.

Source NM asked the agency if the employees named in the civil lawsuit were still employed at the agency. Jessica Preston, the acting spokesperson for the agency, said that one social worker resigned. Three others are all still employed at the agency. Preston could not confirm the status of another.

The settlement was reached early in the year on Jan. 22. That information was only just recently published to the Sunshine Portal, after questions from transparency groups and a Legislative Finance Committee review.

Risk Management Division changes tack

The Risk Management Division is part of New Mexico’s General Services Department and manages the state’s liability insurance. The division also pays out any settlements — both voluntary or court-ordered — in cases alleging misconduct or harm from state agencies.

Settlements can range from repairing property damage, to multimillion-dollar civil rights claims, such as sexual misconduct, whistleblower lawsuits and others. Agencies don’t directly pay for settlements, rather the money comes from the Risk Management Division’s budget. When court cases are resolved with a settlement, recipients are required to drop any legal action against the state.

Rod Crawley, the interim spokesperson for the General Services Department, told Source NM in an email Wednesday that the department updated the portal to include settlements involving children and disabled adults on Friday, Nov. 3.

The portal now has a message in the top banner saying it’s been updated to include more settlements. Source NM previously reported on outdated contact information on the Sunshine Portal.

LFC: NM agency withheld certain settlements from the public

The change, which was authorized by Cabinet Secretary Robert Doucette, came after the performance review issued by the Legislative Finance Committee in September. That report found that the New Mexico Risk Management Division “routinely omits” settlements involving minors and disabled people from public view.

“Part of the recommendation on the audit was that all cases be published to the Sunshine Portal,” Crawley said. “In keeping with this administration’s commitment to transparency, the decision was made to publish all settlements to the Sunshine Portal.”

On Oct. 31, the nonprofit New Mexico Foundation for Open Government sent a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, warning that the General Services Department was potentially violating state transparency laws.

The organization’s executive director, Melanie Majors, cited Doucette’s comments to lawmakers from September, when he said the agency does not publish certain settlements if there is “concern for the safety of children or the disabled.”

“No New Mexico statute allows for this exclusion,” Majors wrote, “and in most cases, lawsuits filed against the state do not reveal the names of the children or disabled adults allegedly harmed by the state.”

What was added to the Sunshine Portal?

Source NM identified at least 31 settlements with minors added to the portal since Nov. 3. That included 13 settlements that were signed in 2023, eight from 2022, nine settlements from 2021 and two added from 2020. Totaled, that’s more than $10.9 million the state paid in cases involving children.

Several of the settlements were from a series of civil lawsuits following the deadly crash between a semi-truck and a Greyhound bus on Interstate 40 near Thoreau. Eight people died, and another 25 were injured, including three young children.

Lawsuits named the New Mexico Department of Transportation as a defendant, alleging the state failed to install barriers in the median to prevent cross-over crashes. This was “despite knowing of the substantial risk from cross-over crashes and having installed a barrier in the median for several miles just west of the crash site,” one of the lawsuits stated.

Other settlements included medical malpractice lawsuits against the University of New Mexico Hospital. The $3.6 million settlement paid on behalf of the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department for the Barreras case in 2023 was, by far, the largest claim.

Is that everything?

In their September report, the Legislative Finance Committee listed three examples of 2022 settlements that were not released to lawmakers or the public in the portal, or in annual reports.

The first was a $1.5 million foster care abuse case, which was still the only one listed in the Sunshine Portal as of Tuesday after Source NM sent multiple inquiries over three days about the missing settlements.

As of 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the General Services department had added all three.

The General Services Department has still not answered questions about why they all weren’t included in the Nov. 3 update to the portal.

In response to Source NM’s question on whether all settlements are now published, and if not, how many remain, Crawley wrote: “The Sunshine Portal was updated with all cases on November 3, 2023.”

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Danielle Prokop
Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop covers the environment and local government in Southern New Mexico for Source NM. Her coverage has delved into climate crisis on the Rio Grande, water litigation and health impacts from pollution. She is based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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