4 Investigates: 12-year-old boy dies of fentanyl overdose

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CARLSBAD, N.M. — One call can save a life. However, for a young boy in Carlsbad, New Mexico, that call to the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department was just a missed opportunity.

Brent Sullivan, 12, died in September 2021. He died of a fentanyl and meth overdose.

“He had a kind little heart,” said Mary Pope, a relative of Sullivan. “Obviously he was in an environment that was not conducive to him having a healthy, fun-filled life. It was very dark and that took over him.”

Carlsbad police officers responded to his grandmother’s home back in September. Family friends told police they were looking for Brent and found him in a shed, unresponsive. Though officers tried to revive him, he was later pronounced dead.

“To get that call from my aunt, ‘I need you here right now, Brent is dead,’ verbatim, that’s what she told me,” said Pope. “I’ll never forget it, never ever and they had 19 days to do something about it. 19 days.”

The police report is a read you’d expect from a horror story. Brent Sullivan was just 12 years old, the oldest of five children, when he overdosed. His youngest sister, a 15-month old baby in the home at the time, also tested positive for meth.

According to police reports, Brent’s mother, Alexis Smith, and grandmother, Kelli Smith, admitted he’d overdosed multiple times before.

Pope lived a few blocks away. When she heard about those other incidents in early September, she did what she thought she was supposed to. She said she called the NM Children Youth and Families Department abuse-reporting hotline.

“I had been told, I didn’t know firsthand, that he had been using and that he had been Narcan’d and no one had sought out any sort of medical treatment for him,” said Pope. “I didn’t know what else to do. In my experience and my profession, I was told that you called SCI.”

Pope said the person who answered the CYFD hotline promised her an investigation within five days.

Calls to that line are not made public. KOB 4 requested data on how many times they received calls on Brent’s family. The CYFD records custodian denied that request claiming confidentiality: “Individual child protective services case information is confidential under NMSA 1978 §32A-4-33(A).”

When Pope didn’t hear back from investigators she called the local CYFD office twice. Brent was found unresponsive just days later.

It’s unclear exactly what went wrong.

“The only way we’re going to solve these problems is if we know what went wrong,” said Maralyn Beck, founder and executive director of New Mexico Child First Network.

New Mexico Child First Network is a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of children in foster care and empowering those families who serve them. 

“No one is being held accountable, no one is asking questions, our children are dying,” said Beck.

CYFD paid for an independent review of the department which found high caseloads, employee turnover and a culture of fear were often to blame in the child death cases it looked at, from 2021.

“The report actually reaffirmed areas I believe, in the last six months, areas that needed to be addressed,” said CYFD Secretary Barbara Vigil.

Secretary Vigil said she has plans to do that. State leaders are eager for results.

“Are we really doing what we should be doing? Are we really doing what’s based for the safety of a child?” said New Mexico State Rep. Marian Matthews, who represents District 27.

Smart policy depends on reliable, accurate data. It’s extremely difficult to track down. Lawmakers, like Rep. Matthews, fear they don’t have an accurate picture of what’s going on.

“We absolutely don’t. This has been a big issue and I’ve been part of a number of committees with the prior administration who, in my opinion, really did try to hide information,” said Rep. Matthews.

Was CYFD missing chances to save children who died as a result of abuse? KOB 4 asked the records department with CYFD months ago – how many of those children it had contact with before they died?

There was some confusion, that number was not initially released, until further clarified.

CYFD does report abuse-related fatalities federally. The data is based on the federal fiscal year of October through September.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • FFY 2019 CYFD reported 9 deaths caused by maltreatment or child abuse. In 5 of those cases the family had contact with CYFD within 3-years preceding death.
  • FFY 2020 CYFD reported 11 deaths caused by maltreatment or child abuse. In 7 of those cases CYFD had some sort of contact with the family within 3-years preceding death.
  • FFY 2021 CYFD reported 8 deaths caused by maltreatment or child abuse. In 3 of those cases CYFD had some sort of contact with the family within 3-years preceding death.
  • FFY 2022 (YTD) CYFD reported 11 deaths caused by maltreatment or child abuse. In 9 of those cases CYFD had some sort of contact with the family within 3-year-old preceding death.

“These are lives. These aren’t cases. These are children,” said Pope.

Children whose cases have been nearly impossible for the public to track.

“The public deserves it, to know how are we systemically addressing child well-being in New Mexico and let me just say I will provide that information and make myself available,” said Secretary Vigil.

Lives may depend on that promise of transparency.

“Secrecy isn’t going to solve these problems,” said Rep. Matthews.

Brent’s mom and grandma are in jail facing charges of child abuse resulting in death.

“It’s just a sad, sad situation and a sad turn of events that just spiraled out of control, out of control and every time somebody could have done something about it, nothing was done. That’s what’s so heartbreaking,” said Pope.