4 Investigates: Former foster parent calls for state accountability after teen death

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Most of the time when New Mexico takes custody of a child the goal is to eventually return them to their family. But is there too big of a push to make that work? New Mexico also leads the nation in repeat child abuse.

The pain of losing a child is unimaginable.  But what if a tragedy like that didn’t have to happen?

Hurt has turned to anger, and now motivation for a local former foster parent who says despite warning after warning, a child in his care was returned home. Then at just 14 years old, he died from a fentanyl overdose.

For Angel Garcia, foster parenting was a calling, a way he could help turn pain into hope.

“I’ve had close to 80 kids, about 80 kids in and out of my home,” said Angel Garcia.

Garcia said he understood his role. To provide stability and care, while helping a family do what they needed to do to eventually be reunited with their child.

But he now believes the unrelenting push to make a foster child’s biological family work – comes at a cost paid by children like Michael Olivas. Friends and family describe him as a happy kid, who loved to help others any way he could. He was a protective older brother, who loved his siblings and never met a stranger.

“In a way, now I feel like I let him down,” said Garcia. “I don’t think anyone else let him down. I think they killed him. I think the state killed him.”

Michael Olivas spent five years in the system with two foster families. Garcia said twice CYFD tried to reunify him with his biological family.  The exact reasons are kept secret by law. But Garcia said those attempts failed. 

As recently as December 2019 Michael’s mother was charged with child abuse. 

“He told me to fight for him,” said Garcia. 

Garcia was so concerned he went to CYFD warning against trying it again. First to his caseworkers and eventual CYFD’s attorney. Sheila Hurley wrote an email to Garcia saying, “Your perspective is not the only perspective that matters.”

Despite that, the third attempt would be the last. Michael’s biological father, Jorge Olivas, was granted custody. However, the reunification plan included no contact with Michael’s mother.

Olivas said he made it clear to Michael that there was no drug use allowed in his house. But he said the mom, who no longer lived there, was still using.

Court records show Michael’s mother tested positive for fentanyl before Michael’s death. 

Jorge Olivas said there was an incident where he got upset after moving back in with his dad. He told his dad he was going to go with his mom. Olivas said Michael left for about a month and a half.

Jorge Olivas filed a police report and called CYFD for help.

Olivas said he was told that because Michael was 14, there was nothing they could do. According to a police report when Bernalillo County Deputies reached out to CYFD they were told that Michael and his mom did not have any open cases.

KOB 4 asked CYFD if that is a department policy:

“Regarding the question about whether 14-year-olds can make decisions about placement, CYFD does not have a specific policy but follows New Mexico law,” said a CYFD Spokesperson. 

We asked CYFD about what Olivas told us, the failure to mention any ‘no-contact’ order that was in place.

“As a general matter, all reports made to CYFD, including reports that are screened out, are cross-reported to the local jurisdiction.  If there is a no-contact order, that information will also be provided,” said a CYFD spokesperson.

 Six months later Michael Olivas died from a fentanyl overdose.

“The idea that there’s not anything anyone can do is not accurate, and it harms children,” said Alison Endicott-Quiñones, Legal Director for Advocacy Inc.

Endicott-Quiñones represents children going through the foster care system. She was not involved in Michael’s case.

“Reunification has always been valued what we’re seeing is the shift in lowering the expectations,” said Endicott-Quiñones.

To keep kids from languishing in the foster system, New Mexico sets a goal of one year after taking custody to have a reunification plan or try something else. But there are no consequences for missing those timelines.

As in Michael’s case, that one year can go on and on.

“The longer and longer it goes the more harm it does,” said Endicott-Quiñones. “But then on the flip side the argument you hear is this is why they should be reunified sooner, rather than let’s make sure we set some timelines. Let’s set some limits on how long we’re going to let these kids ride that roller coaster.”

“The authorities need to say ‘We’re going to give this family a limited number of choices, and it’s going to be expedited. This is not going to go on for months. It’s going to go on for weeks before we make a final determination what happens to this child,” said Charles Nelson, Ph.D. Nelson is a Professor of Pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. “Now that sounds heartless, but I think the bias that’s operating here is there’s something special about a biological family and I think I’m making the point that I don’t think there is. I think the best interest of a child is a family that invests in them, that loves them, that provides constant care for them.”

Nelson is a neuroscientist who, for more than two decades, has studied and researched the trauma of the foster system – a roller coaster.

“The authorities need to take a close look at the family and look at the scientific literature and look at, how likely is it we’re going to get this family back in shape to take this child back in. And here’s the issue, I do a lot of international work in Brazil where I have a big study, huge numbers of kids are removed from their families home early in life because of substance abuse, when substances are involved it’s very difficult to get a family back in a place where they can accept a child,” said Nelson.

Total Children in foster care in New Mexico:

  • 2020: 3,385
  • 2021: 2,998
  • 2022: 2,815

Outcomes for foster children in New Mexico:

  • Adoption:
    • 2020: 336 
    • 2021: 343
    • 2022: 254
  • Reunification
    • 2020: 842
    • 2021: 681         
    • 2022: 593
  • Termination of Parental Rights (TPR)
    • 2020: 378             
    • 2021: 206           
    • 2022: 191 

KOB wanted to know more about how CYFD makes its permanency decisions. We discovered that the people making those final recommendations do not have to be licensed social workers and just this year, the state actually lowered the bar for minimum qualifications. 

The agency wouldn’t show us the research they use and wouldn’t talk to us on camera.

Jorge Olivas said he was glad to have his son back home but knew Michael, in the months leading up to his death, was struggling. While he knew his son had used marijuana, he had no idea how bad things had gotten.

Olivas told us as a parent you try to steer them in the right direction, and it’s really sad when they can’t get out of it.

But that’s not good enough for Angel Garcia. He showed us a handwritten note from Michael. At the end of the letter, he wrote “I wish to be adopted and fill safe with Angel.”

“Everything was brushed under the rug, nobody cared or anything,” said Garcia.

CYFD is investigating Michael’s death. But Garcia knows he will never get answers.

Garcia is done with the system that he said let Michael die. He gave up his foster license.

Michael’s mother has not been charged with a crime related to his death. But she was recently arrested and charged with Distribution of Fentanyl. 

KOB 4 asked CYFD about Michael’s case, as well as how child overdoses are investigated around the state:

“CYFD investigates a child fatality due to an overdose on a case-by-case basis and considers several factors, including the age of the child, development of the child, and whether there was a clear action or omission of a parent to determine whether abuse and/or neglect was a factor in the overdose fatality. 

This case demonstrates the importance of collaboration between all state agencies, law enforcement and our school system responsible for the health and well-being of the state’s children.  This is an important reminder of the dangers of Fentanyl. It rampant in the state and in the country and lethal. there are resources available with our partners at DOH and HSD that are free and available to all New Mexicans,” said a CYFD Spokesperson. 

It’s important to mention, while CYFD does make recommendations ultimately, it’s up to a judge to determine how these highly complex cases play out.

We also wanted to talk to a children’s court judge here in Bernalillo County about the process, but that did not happen. 

CYFD is now publishing data on a new dashboard.