EDITORIAL: Another CYFD case has a tragic, fatal end

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·4 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

May 23—"Children in danger must be taken to safety"

Then-gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham, May 28, 2018

It's a tragic and familiar story that writes itself in New Mexico every few years, regardless of the administration — each time serving as a call for change in how New Mexico protects, or doesn't, its vulnerable children.

In this case, allegations in a lawsuit filed over the brutal beating death of a 4-year-old Albuquerque boy who was left in his mother's care by the state's Children, Youth and Families Department (despite repeated abuse and neglect referrals) detail a monumental failure of protection and oversight.

The short and tragic life of James Dunklee Cruz ended on Dec. 10, 2019. He died minutes after arriving at University of New Mexico Hospital with multiple injuries to his head and chest. His mother had left him with a friend, Zerrick Marquez, who is jailed on a no-hold bond pending trial on a charge of felony first-degree child abuse resulting in death.

Add James' name to the state's list of shame that includes victims like Omaree Varela, Leland Valdez, Izabellah Montano and BreAndra Peña.

The abuse and neglect of James Dunklee Cruz had been ongoing. In August 2019 someone notified CYFD she saw the boy "wandering around an apartment complex on a daily basis for hours at a time asking people for food." A law enforcement officer dispatched to do a welfare check reported finding James under the stairs at the apartment where he was living clutching two teddy bears. Six months before his death, CYFD received a report he had bruises on his back and leg. In October his mother took him to an urgent care center after he sustained multiple injuries including an injured shoulder, bruising on his penis and a black eye. The mother said he fell in a park.

The lawsuit contends if state child protective services had sought to remove James from his mother after investigating multiple allegations of abuse and neglect, he would be alive today.

And the lawsuit presents many facts to support that contention. "This was preventable in that this case was on (CYFD) radar in so many directions," Albuquerque attorney Sara Crecca says. The mother of the boy, who has not been charged criminally, had been in state foster care herself for seven years and was known to the agency, attorneys say.

Advocates liken this case to that of Omaree Varela's beating death at the hands of his mother in 2013 because of the missed or ignored warnings. Omaree was found two days after Christmas, brutally beaten with injuries to the head, chest, abdomen, back, forearms, shin and tongue. He had lost about 25% of his blood volume due to internal bleeding.

Omaree's mother, Synthia Varela-Casaus, eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Her husband, who claimed he was shooting heroin in the bathroom while his wife beat the child, was acquitted of the most serious charges but convicted of others and sentenced to 30 years. The state settled a civil lawsuit, but the amount paid is still secret.

Other young victims included 17-month-old BreAndra Peña, 4-month-old Izabellah Montano and 3-year-old Leland Valdez, who all died at the hands of an adult even after CYFD was contacted by concerned relatives or medical personnel. Their deaths occurred between 2011 and 2014.

When Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was a candidate for governor she penned an op-ed published in the Journal on May 28, 2018. Talking about yet another case where warning signs had been missed and children left in an abusive and dangerous environment by the agency charged with protecting them, Lujan Grisham wrote that "it is outrageous, unacceptable and disturbing that ... the system created to help these children and others just like them failed." She pledged as governor to build a vigilant system and provide the necessary supports to overcome adversity and keep children safe.

Achieving this vision will be no easy feat, she wrote, "but it's a challenge I'm uniquely qualified to undertake." She went on to say that "we must hold our partners, our leaders and ourselves accountable."

So far, the Governor's Office has been mum on this case, referring comment back to CYFD. And CYFD, of course, told the Journal that while the death was tragic the agency can't comment on litigation.

Unfortunately, this is the response we have seen under too many administrations, a response that has done nothing to bolster public trust in an agency charged with protecting our most vulnerable children. The governor was correct in 2018 about the need for change. Part of that change should be lifting the curtain of secrecy shrouding these cases.

That would mean stepping forward, ordering an investigation, publicly outlining what went wrong and holding accountable anyone who was responsible. Only then do we know whether there are any lessons that can be learned from this tragedy — lessons that maybe, just maybe, could prevent a future tragedy.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting