NM governor makes leadership change at child welfare agency

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is making a leadership change at New Mexico’s embattled foster care and child welfare agency.

The governor on Thursday announced the departure of Barbara Vigil as secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department, effective May 1, while the administration searches for a replacement. For the interim, the agency will be lead by Teresa Casados, a political appointee and top administrator to the governor’s office.

New Mexico’s repeat rate of reported child abuse cases is among the worst in the country, amid chronic workforce shortages in the child welfare system and high turnover among employees in protective services.

The state has responded in recent years with increased investments in services aimed at preventing abuse.

In February, the governor outlined new efforts to make the agency and its protective services division more responsive to the needs of children and complaints from families. She commissioned a policy advisory council that Vigil will now join for its first meeting in May.

Republican state Sen. Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte expressed frustration with the leadership change and the recent rejection of legislative proposals on child welfare.

“Legislators were bullied by the governor into rejecting viable, bipartisan solutions with the empty promise that Secretary Vigil would be a steady hand of change,” Diamond said in a statement. “This is truly a sad day for New Mexico.”

Vigil, a former state Supreme Court justice, took the reins of the agency in October 2021 amid New Mexico’s longstanding struggle to improve childhood wellbeing.

On Thursday, Lujan Grisham called Vigil a stabilizing force for the agency, where she improved relationships with staff and constituents including Native American communities.

Vigil oversaw initial implementation of the state’s Indian Family Protection Act, aimed at preventing any arbitrary separation of Native American children from cultural ties to tribal communities.

But frustrations with the agency and concerns about child welfare continue to run high.

This year, Republican lawmakers in the legislative minority led calls for greater accountability through jilted proposals to hire a “chief child advocate” to investigate grievances and new standards for assessing the needs of children.

The governor signed a bill establishing tighter deadlines for courts to determine whether youths remain in state custody, but rejected other accountability initiatives – including a failed proposal to create a civil rights division at the attorney general’s office to advocate for the rights of children.

In a statement, Vigil was hopeful about prospects for improvements.

“Collaborating with child welfare professionals, we built a foundation for lasting change and positive outcomes for our children and families, she said.

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