New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Thursday an overhaul of the state's lead agency for protecting children from neglect and abuse, condemning what she described as an "antiquated" and "siloed" agency that struggles to adequately care for roughly 1,800 youths who are in state custody.
She signed an executive order that outlines new efforts to "ensure that a robust, statewide system exists for children and families in need of immediate services," promising to deploy a "tiger team" of at least four new top level managers.
The announcement arrived amid indications that foster children have routinely slept in central offices of an overwhelmed New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department in Albuquerque, and that a 10-year-old was sexually abused there last year by a teenager with a history of sexual misconduct, in an encounter reported to police. The events were first reported by Searchlight New Mexico and ProPublica.
"The No. 1 priority of that department is protecting children and improving their wellbeing. That is not what is occurring in the state of New Mexico in a way that either the (agency) secretary or I want," Lujan Grisham said at a news conference in her office in the state Capitol. "And our expectation is that that gets shifted quickly, expediently and immediately."
Retired state Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Vigil took the reins of New Mexico’s foster care and child welfare system in October 2021, amid a longstanding struggle to improve childhood wellbeing across the state.
Vigil said she too was eager to make the agency more effective.
"We need to transform Children, Youth and Families Department so it is responsive quickly to the needs of families and we’re not on waiting lists," she said. "It ought to be one entry into the department, and then they’re on their way with support and services."
Lujan Grisham also announced the creation of a new system for filing grievances with the agency and said an annual services audit will be performed by an independent, consulting firm from outside the state. A new "office of innovation" will research best practices in child welfare services.
Several leading Democratic legislators, including Senate President Pro Tempore Mimi Stewart, complimented the governor for publicly confronting shortcomings at the Children, Youth and Families Department.
Republican lawmakers, who are in the legislative minority, are calling for greater accountability at the agency through bills that would create a "chief child advocate" to investigate grievances, new standards for assessing the needs of children and tighter deadlines for courts to determine whether youths remain in state custody.
"I think that our hope is that we start to have some outside eyes on this," said state Sen. Crystal Diamond, of Elephant Butte. "The further and further, we get into it, it just seems like the entire agency needs to be dismantled at this point and rebuilt."
Lujan Grisham rejected calls for an independent accountability office at the agency because it might create an "adversarial setting" and hinder staff recruitment. She said checks and balances already are provided through civil rights laws, public prosecutors and law enforcement.