SANTA FE -- Sept. 25: Yolanda Deines, who heads the state Children, Youth and Families Department, publicly tells legislators that a bombshell allegation against her agency is true. Three registered sex offenders were living in homes that also served as state-sanctioned childcare centers. Deines' staff failed to make the appropriate background checks. Three weeks later, social workers from Deines' department raided a ranch whose mission was to turn around the lives of troubled or troublemaking teenagers. Deines' staff intended to order the ranch proprietor to relinquish custody of nine kids, who had been placed there by their parents. The social workers were reacting to allegations of physical and sexual abuse of teenagers by ranch employees. After being told by a ranch administrator that the teens were away on an outing, state police issued an amber alert. Driven by hysteria, the story of supposedly missing kids in New Mexico went national. Pete Domenici Jr., attorney for the ranch, was a voice thundering in the wilderness. He said all the teens were with their parents or were being reunited with them. In one case, a boy was home with his family two days before police listed him in the amber alert. State police eventually confirmed that all nine kids were safe and lifted the amber alert, but the damage to the ranch's reputation was done. These two instances -- one based on fact, the other on allegations that still need to be investigated -- showed how differently child endangerment cases are treated in New Mexico. In the first case, there was no doubt that Deines and her department were asleep on the job. In the other, Deines was among the many who rushed to judgment against a ranch that had been functioning as a reform school for 20 years. Let's start with Deines' case. The staff of a legislative committee uncovered the fact that registered sex offenders were living in three childcare centers. It alerted Deines. She then suspended the registrations of the centers, a move that belatedly separated children from people who might harm them. Deines is a longtime friend and a onetime mentor to her boss, Gov. Susana Martinez. As a young attorney, Martinez was impressed with how dedicated and skillful Deines was in caring for children whose lives were marred by horrific crimes. Once elected to the state's top office, Martinez brought along Deines as a cabinet secretary. Respected by legislators of both political parties, Deines was spared a public interrogation of how sex offenders could have been under the same roof as kids in daycare centers. Deines was vague on particulars when reporters questioned her. She said sex offenders on probation or parole simply may have moved in with relatives who ran childcare businesses in their homes. Despite the failings by Deines and her department, no legislator challenged her competence or pressured Martinez to remove her from power. Deines' long record of public service was taken into account. She was treated fairly, even deferentially. But when it came to the Tierra Blanca Ranch for troubled kids, there was no consideration of its track record or the fact that it was facing mere allegations. Claims of abuse also occur at government-run detention centers for kids. Nobody assumes the guilt of officers or counselors in those cases. The ranch and its director, Scott Chandler, should not be treated differently. Chandler ought to be entitled to the fairness that Deines received. If a cool-headed investigation establishes that he or any of his employees broke laws, they should be prosecuted. Instead, we have seen a rush to judgment, the model of unfairness. This is especially dangerous in a case propelled by emotion and by political entities.

Milan Simonich, Santa Fe Bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com.