EDITORIAL: Gov. needs to take lead in addressing boy's death, possible cover-up

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Jun. 5—The tragic death of 4-year-old James Dunklee Cruz can't go down as just another CYFD foul-up. It is too heartbreaking and appears entirely preventable had the N.M. Children, Youth, and Families Department heeded warning signs and advice of its investigator.

Two months before he was beaten to death in December 2019, James was taken to urgent care. The signs of abuse were obvious — an injured shoulder, black eye and bruising of his penis. James told police and social workers he was being hurt and sexually abused by men in his mother's life. An autopsy later determined he had suffered jaw fractures and head trauma much earlier than the head and torso injuries that took his life.

Police video in a wrongful death lawsuit against CYFD shows James, at the urgent care center with his arm in a sling, politely answering questions. He even asked a delightfully surprised officer how his day was going. It's a heart-wrenching video; see it at abqjournal.com.

Yet, child welfare workers never filed for legal custody of James, despite 10 referrals to CYFD of child abuse or neglect. By the time a CYFD county case manager approved taking James into custody, he couldn't be located. He was found unresponsive Dec. 10, 2019, in an Albuquerque apartment after his mother, then-22-year-old Krista Cruz, left for work. He was beaten to death by his mom's roommate, Zerrick Marquez, whom CYFD warned Cruz not to live with.

Marquez pleaded guilty in May to child abuse resulting in death but has indicated he wants to withdraw the plea. His girlfriend, Pamela Esparza, and Cruz await trial for reckless child abuse resulting in death.

Instead of taking James into custody when it had the chance, CYFD relied on Cruz to adhere to a series of "safety plans" and other verbal directives — a tragic error by a state agency prone to tragic results.

If that weren't egregious enough, a former CYFD investigator recently testified in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by James' estate that she knew James was being sexually abused and tried in vain to remove him from the abusive and life-threatening home.

Former caseworker Jessica Etoll says supervisors told her to "calm down" and erase and edit her case notes before entering them into the CYFD system.

Upon learning of James' death, the wrongful death lawsuit alleges CYFD supervisors redacted and revised Etoll's investigative notes to eliminate evidence of CYFD liability and caused a factory reset of her CYFD cellphone — erasing photos, text messages and other material evidence — even as CYFD was opening its own investigation into the death. If the allegations hold true, it's a concerning cover-up of government misconduct.

A CYFD spokesman says the department is confident in its position and "remains committed to improving New Mexico's child welfare system and preventing incidents like this from happening."

Really? How, exactly? James' death occurred more than three years ago, and we have yet to find out whether CYFD learned any lessons from this tragedy.

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, Lujan Grisham wrote "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 keep children safe. Achieving this will be no easy feat, "but it's a challenge I'm uniquely qualified to undertake." She added "we must hold our partners, our leaders and ourselves accountable."

The Journal wrote an editorial about James' case more than a year ago, calling on the governor to step forward in James' case, order an investigation, publicly outline what went wrong and hold accountable anyone who was responsible. A year later, we're still waiting to hear if anything has been learned.

And now, with allegations of a cover-up, that investigation and public disclosure are even more important.

It's encouraging to hear 2nd Judicial District Attorney Raúl Torrez's office is reviewing the allegations of potential misconduct by CYFD employees and Attorney General Hector Balderas has promised an evaluation of whether any laws were broken. But Lujan Grisham, who has a law degree and years in the human services realm, must take a more proactive role.

New Mexicans deserve a thorough investigation into this case, including any cover-up.Undoubtedly Lujan Grisham inherited an agency that's been troubled for decades, but this occurred on her watch. If the allegations are true, the public deserves to know who was responsible and what disciplinary actions are being taken. Only the governor can ensure the systemic culture change needed to make CYFD accountable for the safety and well-being of some of New Mexico's most vulnerable.

Those are the promises she made in 2018 — a year before James' death. Those are the promises we urged her to keep more than a year ago. We are still waiting.

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.