Our View: CYFD needs public oversight, and an ombudsman may be the solution

Farmington Daily Times
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It’s good news that Children, Youth and Families Department Secretary Brian Blalock is ending his controversial tenure at the state agency that oversees New Mexico’s strained foster care and child welfare system.

It’s time for a fresh start. The question is, how fresh can that start be when the system itself lacks the key component of public accountability? A cabinet secretary has accountability to one elected official – the governor.

Despite the gains the department’s recent Progress and Impact Report detailed, achieved under Blalock’s stewardship of CYFD, there is also a trail of destroyed public documents and electronic communications. 

Also, there are troubling allegations that whistleblowers faced the bureaucratic equivalent of Soprano Family discipline for raising concerns about policies or certain contracts.

Retired New Mexico Supreme Court justice Barbara Vigil has a huge job on her hands as the newly-minted CYFD secretary. We wish her the best of luck in sorting out a department that has the vital role of protecting our most vulnerable youth.

CYFD is one of those departments everyone wants to see working well and operating in a fair and compassionate manner. It’s the job the state absolutely can’t get wrong.

Since the manager of this department is a cabinet-level secretary, some have called for appointment of an independent ombudsman to review departmental actions. In fact, partisan press releases were landing in email boxes Tuesday like flies at a picnic, and all seemed to mention a lack of transparency in CYFD and the need for oversight. 

Far from being dispassionate observers, the state Republican Party leadership has taken the lead in that call for oversight. Democrats appear to have stayed largely silent on allegations of improper contracts and the destruction of public records without review.

The state’s attorney general, also a Democrat, has promised a review of the department’s self-acknowledged destruction of records but nothing has yet been revealed publicly.

Although it is the state GOP’s job to hit the governor’s administration with any brickbat that is handy, this issue is a pretty good brickbat. It’s far better than a previous one, all that gubernatorial spending on fancy steaks and premium vodka. 

So, here’s a solution – the Legislature should revisit in some form the Child Welfare Ombudsman Act, a law introduced by Kelly K. Fajardo and Rebecca Dow and David M. Gallegos that died during 2020's regular legislative session. HB 213 would have created the office of a child welfare ombudsman selected by nine commissioners. 

Three recent pieces of legislation sought to provide enhanced oversight of CYFD, and the ombudsman plan was one that didn't seem to try to just grab the steering wheel away from CYFD administrators.

The process of decision making, of course, should stay as it is in CYFD even if an ombudsman is appointed. An ombudsman’s job traditionally is one of investigation, communication and even helping disputing parties negotiate, instead of directly righting any wrongs. An ombudsman would have had a six-year term under HB 213, which would potentially bridge administrations.

Is an ombudsman a toothless lion? Well, even a toothless lion can roar.

People who do business with or have matters before CYFD need somewhere they can go other than the AG’s office when they think things are going off the rails, cases are mishandled or contract awards may be kind of shady. When one calls in the lawyers, the only real winner will be those charging billable hours.

Confidentiality for sensitive information is key. The matters CYFD deals with are not only highly personal, sometimes they are matters of life and death. That need for discretion can’t be used as an excuse to throw a blanket over the whole department and repeat the mantra that there’s nothing to see here.

Finally, creation of this position would install some stability into an unstable, or at least highly changeable, management situation. Reliable oversight is needed over a department that is built to have staff changes at the top.

Cabinet secretaries, by the very nature of their offices, are not meant to stay forever. Even the best-intentioned appointee is in the end accountable to the politician who appoints them and serves at their pleasure. And they move on, usually, if the administration changes.

The public needs another level of oversight in this troubled agency, a stable one impacted as little as possible by politics. It’s clear that can’t be done effectively if it’s an in-house project. The old way is not working. 

This editorial represents the view of The Farmington Daily Times editorial board, not the Daily Times' reporting team.

Contact Editor John R. Moses with any questions about Opinion page content at 505-564-4624, or via email at jmoses@daily-times.com.