Blalock steps down:
CYFD secretary replaced by former New Mexico Supreme Court Justice

August 10, 2021


Today, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the resignation of Brian Blalock, secretary of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department. It’s a remarkably sudden departure, capping Blalock’s turbulent 18-month reign over the agency responsible for child welfare in New Mexico.  

Blalock will be replaced by Barbara Vigil, a recently retired chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court and longtime advocate for child welfare issues. 

In a press conference Tuesday morning, Gov. Lujan Grisham said that she had grown concerned over a number of “administrative missteps” Blalock had made, including his policy of using the encrypted messaging app Signal to conduct official state business. That policy — first revealed in an April 26 Searchlight New Mexico investigation — ignited a flurry of criticism from attorneys, child advocates and legislators on both sides of the aisle.  

Blalock’s departure was “a mutually agreed-upon decision,” Lujan Grisham said. 

An unconventional leader from the San Francisco Bay Area, Blalock was initially greeted as a “visionary” who might finally transform CYFD. In 2019 he took on what is probably the hardest job in New Mexico: running the agency that oversees the state’s most vulnerable children, a position that put him center-stage in the governor’s campaign promise of pulling New Mexico out of its last-place position for child well-being. 

It was a particularly tempestuous time for CYFD. The agency had been slammed for its handling of a number of deaths of children in CYFD custody. (Searchlight brought a particularly harrowing example to light in 2018 with the investigation A Pattern of Failures, which documented CYFD’s practice of allowing privately run foster homes to operate without oversight, resulting in appalling child abuse.) Just before Blalock’s arrival, New Mexico was also hit with a massive foster-care lawsuit brought by 14 children, alleging that CYFD was traumatizing the roughly 4,700 youth in its care.

The governor — like many in New Mexico — had high hopes that her new CYFD chief could turn things around. A rising star in California’s child welfare scene, Blalock was equipped with an Ivy League pedigree and a Stanford law degree, and had an impressive track record in nonprofit work. The administration and the media hailed him as a crusader.

Nevertheless, the scandals kept mounting after his arrival. Children’s advocates began complaining that Blalock was stalling on reforms he had agreed to as part of the foster-care lawsuit settlement. There were accusations of retaliation against foster parents; CYFD employee complaints about a hostile work environment grew louder. And in late 2019, the brutal murder of James Dunklee Cruz, a 4-year-old boy who CYFD knew was in danger, rattled the entire state. Why had the agency missed all the obvious warning signs, advocates and attorneys asked? 

As the chorus of frustration built, so did the political pressure on Lujan Grisham, who recently announced her run for a second term as governor. Her potential opponent in 2022, Republican Rebecca Dow, has made a career of pointing to CYFD’s failures to protect children and is sure to weaponize Blalock’s performance during a campaign. “I am not surprised that Secretary Blalock would resign,” Dow said in a statement released after the press conference. He had failed, she said, to “create a system with accountability and transparency.”

The pressures on Blalock reached a boiling point in the last few months following the release of two Searchlight investigations. 

A report published in May revealed that CYFD employees — at Blalock’s direction — were conducting official state business using Signal, a secretive text messaging app. In violation of state law, Blalock had set the app to indiscriminately delete messages on a rolling basis, destroying an untold number of public records in the process. 

The story quickly caught fire. Child welfare lawyers were incensed that records they needed to represent their clients in court were disappearing. The New Mexico Attorney General launched an investigation; Republicans seized on the scandal. 

Shortly afterward, Searchlight revealed that Blalock had fired two high-level employees who had protested his policy of destroying official communications. The firings only deepened the scandal, resulting in a whistleblower lawsuit and further media scrutiny. 

Last month, another Searchlight investigation — “Questions of Fairness” — revealed an additional controversy: Under Blalock’s direction, CYFD had potentially violated procurement codes by handing a lucrative sole-source contract to a little-known California tech company. And not just any contract — it was for a giant $45 million overhaul to update the state’s computer system for tracking kids in foster care and juvenile detention. Binti Inc., the company in question, was only a year old when it got the contract and had never built such a system before. Federal funding of the project is now in question, state analysts say.

When employees voiced concern about the Binti contract — that the department could be breaking the law, that it could lose its critical federal funding, 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.  

Blalock is stepping down to support his wife, Linnea Forsythe, who has taken “an incredible job somewhere else,” the Governor said. Forsythe had been serving as director of the Governor’s Commission on Disability and as the state’s ombudswoman for long-term care. 

Blalock, for his part, leaves CYFD in a crisis of low morale, high turnover and a shortage of expertise — and Vigil, his replacement, faces a daunting job.

During her time on the bench, Vigil was instrumental in creating a number of alternative treatment programs for juvenile defendants. She comes to the post with three decades of experience in public service. During more than 12 years as a district court judge, she presided over 16,000 cases, many of them related to children and families. She also presided over the state Children’s Court for a decade.

Speaking to the media Tuesday morning, the governor was blunt about her expectations for Vigil going forward. 

“I expect [Secretary Vigil] to be open, transparent, that she does everything she can do to train and support her staff, to not make mistakes, to not be careless,” the governor said.