UPDATE: On Friday, March 27, the New Mexico Supreme Court suspended all in-person visits involving youth in state custody for at least 30 days, directing the Children, Youth and Families Department to hold visits through video or phone calls instead. The justices ruled that public health directives meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus outweighed the need for face-to-face visits.  CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock called the suspension “one of the most painful decisions” the state has made in its response to the pandemic.  

Families first. That’s the sentiment behind last week’s decision by of New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department to continue visitation between foster kids and their biological families — despite the risk of infection from coronavirus.
Though CYFD closed its supervised visitation offices for the vast majority of cases, the agency is now instructing staff to collect children from their foster homes to meet up with their birth families in public parks and other outdoor spaces. The meetings will continue in spite of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s order Monday that all nonessential businesses in New Mexico close and that all residents stay at home “except for outings essential to health, safety, and welfare.”
Caught between the new order and the constitutional rights of biological parents, many foster parents are panicked by CYFD’s directive, insisting that it will put the health of their households at risk.
“I’ve cleaned my house, I’ve canceled all activities, I’ve washed my hands 6,000 times,” said Jill Michel, a mother of seven who fosters two children for CYFD. “Going out into the community is the exact opposite of what the governor is telling us to do. I can’t control where the kids will go for the visits and what they’ll be exposed to. 
“They are putting my family at risk and it makes me very uncomfortable. If you’re going to make us take these kids out in the word, then you take them for 14 days.” 
CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock has reassured foster families that his agency is moving with extreme caution. Prior to visits, workers have been instructed to conduct telephone screenings with biological parents to check for travel history, symptoms of illness and other red flags for COVID-19 exposure. Parents, children and case workers alike are all required to maintain 6 feet of distance during visits. 
“We’re following the most precautions of any place across the country as far as how we’re dealing with our visits,” said Blalock, who added that no family in his jurisdiction has tested positive.
“This is a delicate thing, and we need to be sure not to panic. I can’t imagine being a child trying to get back to your parents and then having this happen. It would make a terrifying situation even more terrifying.”
Foster parents remain apprehensive. Searchlight New Mexico learned that, as recently as March 24, meetings were being arranged without health screenings; others say CYFD workers have placed foster children directly in their parent’s arms, disregarding the department’s new social-distancing protocols. In interviews, four foster parents said they had been instructed to host family visits in trampoline parks, malls and fast-food restaurants.

“It’s crazy — if a bio parent wants to see their kids, do you think they’re going to tell CYFD they have coronavirus symptoms?” said a foster parent in Albuquerque who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“This child is on a feeding tube, and his doctor tells me not to take him outside,” she continued. “Yet I’m being told he has to go for family visits. His parents live in a motel with six other people and are struggling with meth addiction. What if he gets sick? How is this protecting anybody?”
The new protocol of holding family visits in public has introduced security vulnerabilities exploited by at least one biological parent. Destinee Carrillo, the mother of two young girls in CYFD custody, fled from a family therapy visit at a northeast Albuquerque wellness center last Thursday, taking her children with her.
Carrillo had previously contacted media, including Searchlight, in an attempt to publicize what she thought was the unfair removal of her kids. Neither Carrillo nor her daughters have been found.
At least one lawmaker has asked the governor to halt in-person family visits and move exclusively to video conferencing. State Rep. Rebecca Dow (R-Grant, Hidalgo and Sierra Counties) last week expressed concern over the issue, saying the practice is “shifting an incredible burden to foster families” and exposing them to unnecessary risk. 
Despite the risks, stopping family visits is fraught for both CYFD and families. Considered an essential step in the eventual reunification of foster youth with their birth parents, the visits are court mandated and halting them would likely not be possible without intervention from a judge.
“There is a legal, constitutional and a moral obligation to continue trying to reunify these parents with their children,” said Bette Fleishman, director of Pegasus Legal Services for Children, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit law office that advocates for children and families.
“You have got to let these parents see their kids and let these children see their parents. People are going to have to get really creative.”
Videoconferencing is not a viable option in many cases, Fleishman said, especially for babies and very young children who don’t yet speak and are in the vital developmental stages of bonding with their parents.
Thus far, CYFD’s response to the coronavirus crisis is largely in step with most states. A few have moved to severely restrict family visits until the pandemic subsides. Oklahoma has moved to arrange family visits exclusively through video calls. Courts in Los Angeles County have suspended most in-person visitation, while Maine’s Office of Child and Family Services has temporarily put a halt to such meetings entirely.
 “You’re basically suspending a constitutional right for the parents to access the child,” Blalock said. “We’re nowhere near that point as far as what’s happening with the pandemic in New Mexico.” 

March 26, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect Oklahoma’s newly-changed visitation policy, and to clarify that Carrillo’s children were taken during a therapy visit.​

Read more coronavirus coverage here.

Ed Williams, a Searchlight investigative reporter, covers child welfare, social justice and other issues. In 2022, he was selected for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network to produce stories about abuses...