In the wake of the death of 3-year-old Leland Valdez, The Santa Fe New Mexican took a comprehensive look this weekend at problems with the system that failed to protect him from fatal child abuse – and what might be done to fix things.
Reporter Geoff Grammer (a former colleague of mine) had a comprehensive article on the history of the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department that included some depressing findings:
“• The very agency created 19 years ago to protect our children is still making the same mistakes that were costing children their lives two decades ago. Politics, paperwork and personnel policies have often steered the Children, Youth and Families Department away from fulfilling its mission to protect children.
“• A state employee who closed an abuse investigation regarding Leland Valdez in August was herself found by CYFD to have substantiated abuse claims against her. CYFD also believes she was improperly accessing information in sealed files involving cases against her.
“• A police report detailing the findings of an August investigation failed to get forwarded to the District Attorney’s Office for possible filing of criminal charges until after Leland’s January death.
“• A custody decision favored the woman now charged with Leland Valdez’s death. That decision happened because the mother had an attorney fighting for her, because the father failed to show up for a court hearing and because there was little collaboration among agencies designed to protect children.
“How does this happen?” Leland Valdez’s father asked. “How does somebody do this to a child? And how could nobody who was supposed to help him be able to do their job and help him when he needed it? I don’t get any of this.”
Permanency rather than reunification
How this happened is a topic being probed by the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez. A second article, by New Mexican reporter Julie Ann Grimm, details the philosophical shift the administration wants at CYFD:
“Martinez pledged last week to upend an agency policy that gives preference to sending abused kids back home,” the article states. “…One of the cornerstone policies of the child-welfare agency when dealing with families is reunification — the idea that returning children in state custody to their homes of origin is a priority.”
CYFD Secretary-designate Yolanda Berumen Deines wants to change that.
“I believe in reunification when it is appropriate,” Deines was quoted by The New Mexican as saying. “I want to be able to look at those policies more closely because my concern is that I understand in some instances children have been kept in care way too long in efforts to be reunified. I think we really need to look at permanency.”
Essentially, the philosophical shift Martinez’s administration may seek, it appears, is having less patience with abusive and neglectful parents who don’t clean up their act, and, in such situations, being quicker to strip parents of parental rights so children can get into stable situations more quickly.
The New Mexican also highlighted some reform proposals from Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, D-Doña Ana, in a third article.