CYFD deputy secretary steps down - collaborative story by Searchlight New Mexico

November 23, 2021

Ed Williams

Another high-profile resignation is in the works at the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department. Terry Locke, who has served as deputy secretary of CYFD since 2019, has announced his retirement, marking the latest in a string of departures from the agency responsible for the well-being of the state’s most vulnerable children.

Locke will be replaced on Dec. 1 by Beth Gillia, a longtime attorney and director of the University of New Mexico’s Corinne Wolfe Center for Child and Family Justice. In that role, Gillia has directed efforts to reduce racial disparities in juvenile justice sentencing and was instrumental in New Mexico’s implementation of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Locke’s exit from CYFD comes three months after his boss, former CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock, resigned in the wake of what Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham described as a series of “administrative missteps.” Chief among those missteps was Blalock’s policy of directing staff to use the encrypted text messaging app Signal for official state business, then setting all texts to automatically delete.

Current and former CYFD employees say Locke was closely involved with implementing the Signal policy and relied heavily on the app for official communications. He also set his Signal texts to auto-delete, screenshots obtained by Searchlight New Mexico show.

His resignation comes as the agency faces scathing criticism for its handling of two recent cases of child abuse resulting in the death of a 1-month-old boy in Valencia County and a 2-year-old girl in Albuquerque. In both cases, CYFD had been notified that the children were being abused or were at risk of abuse, but did not remove them from danger.

The department on Nov. 18 announced that it would ask an outside expert to help CYFD assess its policies and procedures to minimize the risk of child fatalities, agency spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst said. “Our hope is to retain a national firm with expertise in this area — one that has successfully assisted other states in evaluating the child welfare system,“ he said.

‘Data dumping’

The Signal policy, first uncovered by Searchlight in April, infuriated children’s attorneys and government transparency advocates, who say the practice violated state open records law and crippled lawyers’ ability to access documents needed to represent their clients. It also unleashed a slew of attacks from Republicans in the state legislature, who issued a statement demanding an investigation into “data dumping and IPRA (Inspection of Public Records Act) violations by CYFD” and the Lujan Grisham administration.

In April, the New Mexico Attorney General’s office launched a legal review of CYFD’s handling of public records; the investigation remains underway, according to an office spokeswoman.

In August, Lujan Grisham announced Blalock’s resignation; his replacement, former New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil, took the helm as cabinet secretary in October.

Several other senior-level CYFD managers have left or been shifted to new posts in recent months. Nick Costales, who had led the agency’s Juvenile Justice Services Division, retired in October. Annamarie Luna, the longtime head of CYFD’s Protective Services Division, recently resumed her previous role as northern field deputy director, Moore-Pabst said.

The staffing shakeup takes place amid what employees describe as an endemic culture of retaliation and workplace intimidation — a culture that created turmoil under the administration of Blalock and Locke and led to the departures of some of the agency’s most seasoned professionals.

Binti imbroglio

Much of the tension centered around a controversial decision by Blalock to award a lucrative software contract to a little-known California-based tech startup called Binti Inc.

That contract was among the most important in state government: a massive $45 million overhaul to update the state’s Comprehensive Child Welfare Information System, a computer program for tracking kids in foster care and juvenile detention.

Such high-stakes contracts normally go through an exhaustive competitive bidding process. But under Blalock’s direction, CYFD leadership insisted on handing the contract exclusively to Binti Inc.— a company that was only a year old and had never built such a system before.

A monthly audit by an independent contractor labeled the project as high risk, as did the state’s Legislative Finance Committee. And the Binti software that’s been installed to date has been plagued with functionality problems, some employees say. In October, CYFD announced it was canceling its plans to have Binti take over the state’s child welfare software system.

The department will now have to essentially start from square one — going back to the competitive bidding process it started before Blalock arrived in 2019. All told, that will put the department’s software overhaul years behind schedule. Meanwhile, staffers will have to continue using the decades-old system the agency has been trying to replace for three years.

When employees voiced concern about the Binti contract — worrying that the department could be breaking the state’s procurement law, that it could lose its critical federal funding, or that the state might be saddled with a broken data system — they were written up for insubordination, taken off the upgrade team or even fired.

“Binti is the sacred cow at CYFD,” Jackson Williams, a former CYFD employee, told Searchlight in July.

When Williams asked questions about the Binti contract in late 2019, he said he was promptly removed from the team overseeing the project. Shortly afterward, his supervisor issued him a letter of reprimand asserting that he had violated “the chain of command” when he raised concerns about Binti. Williams later resigned.

More than half a dozen other high-level employees have since been reprimanded, resigned or were fired after they raised questions about Binti Inc., according to interviews with former and current staffers.

Among them was Debra Gilmore, the former head of CYFD’s Office of Children’s Rights, who submitted concerns about the state selecting a start-up that did not appear to have “significant experience in the child welfare space.”

Debra’s husband, Cliff W. Gilmore, formerly the chief of CYFD’s communications office, was also vocal about the agency’s use of Signal and its procurement practices. The Gilmores were abruptly fired in May and have since filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Blalock and Locke, claiming they were wrongfully terminated. They also filed a complaint with the New Mexico State Ethics Commission about CYFD’s handling of the Binti contract.

Those cases are currently working their way through the court system and ethics review process.

Morale problems exist throughout the agency, reaching far beyond those involved with the Binti contract, multiple employees interviewed for this story told Searchlight.

“Coming to work at CYFD is like constantly being on pins and needles,” said one worker who asked not to be identified. “If you rock the boat by speaking up about something you see, there might not be a job for you the next day. A lot more work needs to be done to change that culture.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misstated the year that Terry Locke started as deputy secretary. It was 2019, not 2018.

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