Bills push for CYFD transparency and oversight

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SANTA FE, N.M. – House Bill 11 cleared a floor vote with strong bipartisan support Wednesday. The proposal is working to establish an “Office of the Child Advocate” otherwise known as a Children Youth & Families Department Ombudsman.

That independent office would oversee operations, investigations, and complaints from outside CYFD, and step in to address any concerns. This is a number one priority for child welfare advocates who want to increase accountability for the department, and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are on board.

“We owe it to our most vulnerable citizens. I think this is a well-crafted bill and I appreciate you for letting me sign on to this bill, because we owe it to our kids,” said state Rep. Alan Martinez. 

HB 11 is not the only bill working to create a CYFD oversight agency.

The state Senate is expected to vote on a nearly identical bill from Senate Republicans Wednesday.

If approved both bills will likely have to move through House and Senate committees that already approved the other bill.

Oversight was not the only CYFD discussion in the Roundhouse Wednesday. The House Health and Human Services Committee unanimously approved House Bill 10 to increase transparency, and CYFD leaders say they’re supporting it.

“There’s just been too many tragedies, and without answers, and without real ability to figure out how we could do better as a state in protecting our kids,” said state Rep. Marian Matthew.  

Matthews says the secrecy surrounding CYFD and the unsettling child abuse and neglect cases it investigates can be traced back to current state laws.

“It essentially prohibits the agency from disclosing almost any kind of information about these really sad and heartbreaking cases,” said Matthew.  

That includes the deadly beating of 4-year-old James Dunklee Cruz back in 2019.

Matthews says the public knew it happened but CYFD wasn’t allowed to reveal the important details.

“Why was that little boy put back with his mother, and back in a family where he ended up dying? Those are the kinds of questions that people have real, legitimate interest and how could this happen,” Matthew said.  

HB 10 wants to make sure those questions are answered.

Matthews says the proposal is reworking several parts of the children’s code to allow CYFD to provide those answers, but only after cases become public.

“Once it has become public because of a police report, because of a press report or whatever, then it’s important that the facts get out so that there’s, you know, people don’t have the wrong idea about what may have happened or not happened,” said Matthew. 

CYFD Secretary Barbara Vigil testified during Wednesday morning’s committee meeting and said she fully supports increasing options for the department to be more transparent with the public.

The department is also supporting oversight initiatives.

CYFD Public Information Officer, Rob Johnson said in a statement:

“CYFD is committed to any legal mechanism that will enable it to be more transparent and accountable to the people it serves. We do not oppose legislation that offers independent oversight, as long as it was developed with input from those affected by the system.”

This bill is still pretty far from the finish line. It only cleared its first hurdle Wednesday and will have to quickly move through the House and Senate before next Saturday’s deadline.

Track HB 11 during the legislative session.

Track HB 10 during the legislative session.