Report: Backlog of CYFD investigations signals 'clear and urgent safety risk' for kids

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Jan. 26—Two nationally recognized experts on child welfare reform issued a blistering report Friday calling on New Mexico to take "immediate action" amid crushing caseloads at the Children, Youth and Families Department and a backlog of more than 2,000 investigations of abuse and neglect.

"Some of the pending investigations, we were told, date back to the first half of 2023. Staff in one office reported there are numerous investigations where children have never been seen by CYFD even after the agency determined that a report of alleged abuse or neglect warranted investigation," Judith Meltzer and Kevin Ryan wrote in a letter to CYFD Secretary-designate Teresa Casados and Human Services Secretary Kari Armijo.

"This is a clear and urgent safety risk for children," they wrote in bold.

Meltzer and Ryan, designated "co-neutrals" who are charged with overseeing the implementation of a groundbreaking settlement agreement meant to improve the state's child welfare system following a class-action lawsuit, offered a blunt assessment of the situation.

"In sum, the agency must begin acting like there is in fact a crisis that threatens children's safety and compels new, urgent, barrier-breaking activity," they concluded.

In their seven-page letter, obtained late Friday by The New Mexican, Meltzer and Ryan wrote they met with a variety of people, from the two Cabinet secretaries and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to caseworkers, supervisors and managers at various CYFD offices throughout the state, during a recent visit to New Mexico.

"We had hoped when undertaking these visits to county offices, four months after our last site visits, that we would see evidence of improvement," they wrote. "However, what we heard and observed was to the contrary; we heard about deteriorating conditions and crisis situations in most of the offices we visited."

Problems the pair identified last year remain, and the state has made little to no progress in addressing them, the letter says.

The state's "weak performance" implementing a corrective action plan to address problems "appears to have worsened the situation," it adds.

Meltzer and Ryan said they plan to send an updated memo on the corrective action plan next month but didn't want to wait until then to sound the alarm on "serious risks to child and staff safety."

In response to The New Mexican's request for comment on the letter from officials with CYFD and the Governor's Office, CYFD spokeswoman Jessica Preston wrote in an email late Friday, "We share the concerns of the Co-Neutrals outlined in the letter we received on Friday.

"While work force and staffing continue to be a challenge, we are focused on ensuring tangible results," she added. "We truly believe that the results in the upcoming months will more effectively demonstrate positive change."

The damning report comes as lawmakers, whose patience with CYFD is running thin, consider a resolution asking voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would take the troubled agency from the executive branch and place it under the oversight of an independent commission.

It also comes just days after State Auditor Joseph Maestas issued a "formal letter of concern" regarding CYFD's financial affairs.

"State law requires any public entity that suspects any instances of fraud, waste and abuse to notify my office," Maestas said. "There were instances of vendor fraud for two consecutive years, and for those two years, they did not notify my office."

Preston wrote in an email there was only one instance of fraud in which the agency failed to notify the State Auditor's Office.

The outside audit states senior management at CYFD didn't appear to be aware of all instances of fraud, waste and abuse, which Preston wrote is untrue.

"The CYFD CFO and the Deputy Administrative Services Director are made aware of instances of fraud," she wrote.

Maestas declined to offer an opinion on the proposed constitutional amendment and other legislative efforts to improve CYFD, but he said he wants lawmakers to be aware of the audit findings, which are posted on his agency's website.

"I think it has a direct bearing in this entire discussion about the fate of the agency and what changes need to be made for it to be more accountable and more transparent," he said.

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat who is spearheading the proposed constitutional amendment, said it's painfully clear CYFD is an organization in serious decline.

"The problem is nobody trusts CYFD as it's currently constituted," he said. "There's too much political influence or at least the perception of political influence."

Ortiz y Pino said the agency has experienced "incredible turnover." Casados is its third Cabinet secretary since Lujan Grisham became governor.

"Here's one little example," Ortiz y Pino said. "The secretary brought her new management team to meet with some Democratic senators in early January. I'm not critical of the team, but there was not one member of that team who had been a member of the previous secretary's team when a group of us met with them last year."

Meltzer and Ryan's letter identifies high staff vacancy rates among a long list of problems at the agency.

In Bernalillo County, seven investigators reported responsibility for more than 40 investigations each, including two whose caseloads surpassed 120 investigations.

"Several days before our visit, three investigators had departed the agency, leaving 376 investigations to be newly re-assigned to investigators, supervisors, and managers, many of whom already manage unreasonably high caseloads," the letter states.

The backlog of more than 2,000 investigations pertained to only two of the agency's five regions.

CYFD employees told Meltzer and Ryan a monthslong hiring freeze implemented by Casados last year to evaluate the department's needs only made the staffing situation worse.

"Staff turnover and the number of vacancies continue to be very high, placing a consistent strain on current staff," the letter states, adding some staff the pair interviewed are planning to resign or retire, "which will create yet more vacancies that need to be filled."

When CYFD started hiring again in September, the training academy couldn't handle an "influx of workers" who needed employee training, which delayed their ability to aid in managing caseloads, the letter states. It says some workers reported waiting more than a month for training.

Managers are stretched unreasonably thin, the letter states. While most employees feel supported by their supervisors, others said they "effectively do not have a supervisor."

Almost every worker considers CYFD's on-call requirement "untenable and not sustainable," the letter states.

"The frequency with which it occurs and the hours that it involves result in CYFD staff reporting that they get little to no sleep" before starting a new shift, Meltzer and Ryan wrote.

Employees also reported that for more than a year, children have consistently been sleeping overnight in CYFD offices in Roswell, Las Vegas, N.M., and Albuquerque, creating an unsafe environment.

"Staff reported they are mandated to work shifts to provide supervision for children in the offices, many of whom provide serious emotional, medical, and behavioral challenges that CYFD staff are not prepared to handle," Meltzer and Ryan wrote.

Some CYFD offices are using temporary workers or contracted aides to help staff supervise children, but Meltzer and Ryan wrote it doesn't appear they've received adequate training on, among other things, how to deescalate a conflict or crisis.

"In Roswell," the letter states, "CYFD staff frequently respond by calling law enforcement and transferring children to hospital emergency rooms."

Employees who are repeatedly charged with supervising children sleeping overnight in offices reported feeling unsafe.

"In reviewing critical incident reports provided by CYFD over the last six months in addition to what we heard from staff during our meetings, we believe there are conditions now that are unsafe for children and unsafe for staff," Meltzer and Ryan wrote.

Employee morale is in the tank, according to the letter.

"Across the board, CYFD staff feel stressed by unreasonable expectations, frustrated by the lack of services and resources, angry at unreasonably high caseloads, often fearful about children's office stays and the safety of children they are unable to visit or see due to their caseloads, and unsupported by leadership," the letter states.

The letter also reports "widespread confusion about CYFD's reorganization" by employees at all levels.

"According to most of the CYFD staff who spoke with us, this change felt abrupt and with little communication or clarity," the letter states. "Staff reported a continued lack of communication over roles and responsibilities which is exacerbating staff's feelings of not being heard or supported. Workers reported that it has resulted in, or deepened, silos within offices and an erosion of teamwork."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.