Carrizozo is a windswept town just north of the Sacramento Mountains, a tiny place of 936 souls, where everybody knows everybody else. So when a state investigator showed up at Christy Cartwright’s doorstep in January, the mother of five was horrified to learn that an employee of Carrizozo Municipal Schools had reported her for child abuse.

Her kids had attended the district’s three schools for the past 15 years. Despite a spate of run-ins with the high school principal and special education staff, Cartwright called Carrizozo home. How, she wondered, could anyone there believe she was capable of hurting her children?

Then, less than a month later, another investigator from the New Mexico Children, Youth & Families Department came knocking — this time with two new reports filed by an anonymous school employee.

The first report accused Cartwright of abusing her grandson — who earlier that year had moved to Texas. The second said that Cartwright’s kids had missed more than two consecutive weeks of school: a clear case of educational neglect. It also accused her and her partner, Harold Burch, of giving the children marijuana, suggested the parents were high on meth, and charged them with “brain washing the children to say they are bullied at school.”

Two months later, CYFD sent Cartwright an official letter concluding that all allegations made by the school were baseless. The state tossed out the case.

By then, Cartwright had a pretty good idea of what — if not who — was behind the complaints. For years, she and Burch had been embroiled in arguments with school administrators over a wide range of issues, from ongoing bullying to special education services.

“I’m a pain in their ass because I won’t leave them alone until they provide accommodations for my kids and stop the bullying,” said Cartwright, ticking off a litany of complaints:

When 16-year-old Carlos became the target of homophobic bullying, the parents demanded that the school put an end to it. When a special education teacher drove Marcus, who has schizophrenia and autism, up into the mountains and left him to wander lost and alone for hours, Cartwright went ballistic. When Ashley, an 8th grader at Carrizozo Middle School, struggled for two years without a legally required update to her individualized education plan, the parents complained. Loudly.

Now, the way Cartwright sees it, the school was fighting back.

“They think I’m harassing them, but I just want my kids to get a damn education,” Cartwright said, her voice accented with a Southern drawl from her native east Texas. “They’re using CYFD as a weapon to get rid of parents like us.”

Sarah Burch, Christy Cartwright and Marcus Campbell at home in Carrizozo. Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

A handy intimidation tool

A knowingly false report of child abuse is illegal, and many states impose strict penalties against any person who files such a report. In New Mexico, failure to report a case of child abuse is a misdemeanor punishable by a year in jail and a fine of $1,000. But filing a false report effectively carries no punishment whatsoever.

Parents, attorneys, advocates and CYFD employees agree that such malicious reports by school personnel are widespread, both here in New Mexico and across the country.

Searchlight New Mexico has spoken with 28 parents who shared personal stories of retaliation by school employees. Almost invariably, those instances of alleged retaliation followed arguments with the school over special education programs or student behavior problems in class.

“The CYFD reporting system is a handy dandy way to intimidate parents,” said Gail Stewart, an Albuquerque attorney who has represented dozens of parents of students with disabilities who have had CYFD reports filed against them.

“It’s anonymous, it’s very, very serious, and it’s very, very intimidating. You want people to come forward if they have a suspicion, but the system really can be abused.”

Though Stewart’s practice does not specifically focus on cases involving false CYFD reports, she said she repeatedly comes across instances of straightforward vendettas against parents who dare to complain about their kids’ schooling. And virtually every one of them, she said, is a parent of a disabled child.

“I just can’t be any more clear: the root of this is the school district’s exclusion of the child,” Stewart added. “Districts do intimidate parents so that parents pick up and leave or home-school their children …but the root of it is a prejudice against children with disabilities.”

In New Mexico, reports of child abuse or neglect are routinely referred to law enforcement, regardless of whether CYFD believes the allegation to be true or false.

With no system in place to track and prosecute malicious calls, those who make such reports rarely face any consequence. But their action comes with a price. A malicious accusation can traumatize families and muck up the gears of the state child-welfare system, wasting resources and sending protective service workers into dead-end investigations.

An unwarranted visit from police may destroy all trust between families and school staff, frightening parents away from participating in special education planning or even forcing them to transfer their children to another school out of desperation.

After Carrizozo school employees filed their accusations against Cartwright and Burch, tensions grew so high that the parents requested that a police officer sit in on meetings with the principal over ongoing bullying.

Ashley Burch, Marcus Campbell and Harold Burch at home in Carrizozo. Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico

“Everything’s ‘bully, bully, bully,’ that’s all you ever hear about,” Principal W. Todd Lindsay said in one such meeting on Feb. 20, as recorded by a police officer’s lapel camera. “I’m telling you for a fact, there is no bullying at this school.

“They just hate us,” Lindsay later told Searchlight, referring to Cartwright and Burch. “I don’t know who filed those CYFD reports, but teachers are mandated by law. If they see something, they have to report it.”

Lindsay insisted that the calls to CYFD were not retaliatory in nature. Still, Cartwright and Burch were so shaken by the abuse investigations that they still hesitate to send their kids to school each morning.

“Having a child in special education is already an uphill battle,” said Andrea Leon, director of programs for Parents Reaching Out, a nonprofit statewide organization that helps parents navigate their children’s healthcare, education, and other needs, including advocating for families of children with disabilities.

“These retaliatory CYFD calls can really freak parents out,” she said, noting that the impact is especially frightening for immigrant parents, who need a clean record to gain citizenship. “Parents have a legal right to participate in their kids’ special education plans, but when these calls happen a lot of parents will just give up and leave the district.”

Leon, who helped Cartwright and Burch respond to the false abuse reports, said the impact of retaliatory reporting tends to be greater in rural areas, where parents often have no alternative to local public schools.

“Where else are we going to go?” Cartwright asked. “We got no choice but that school. That’s why we’re going to fight tooth and nail until they give our kids an education.”

Christy Cartwirght with a binder documenting her disagreements with the Carrizozo school district. Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

Abusing a system set up to prevent abuse

Officials at CYFD have been raising concerns over malicious use of the abuse and neglect reporting system ever since the department unveiled its #SAFE hotline eight years ago.
As soon as the phones started ringing at the Statewide Central Intake call center in 2011, it became apparent to CYFD employees that the hotline, though a valuable tool for identifying children in danger, could also be used for vindictive purposes. Reports started coming in that were clearly false, and often malicious or retaliatory in nature.

“Every hour we spend sorting out false and malicious allegations is an hour taken from a frightened child who truly needs our help,” said then-Secretary Yolanda Deines, during a press conference shortly after the hotline’s launch.

“Please find a healthier way to express your anger, and don’t take time away from a child who might be in danger,” Deines said.

Eight years later, CYFD employees say that the Statewide Central Intake office, or SCI, continues to receive malicious reports on an almost daily basis, most commonly from school staff and divorced couples in the midst of custody battles. A lack of data, however, has led to questions within CYFD about the frequency of such calls.

“We don’t want our agency to be used as a mean guard dog” to bully parents, said SCI manager Paul Williams. “But I see it all day long.”

In 2018, the call center received 40,643 reports of abuse and neglect. Around 6,000 of those callers, or 14.5 percent, self-identified as school employees.

And according to multiple CYFD employees, that number reflects a small fraction of the  actual calls from school personnel, since most of them report anonymously. Williams estimates that between 40 percent to 50 percent of calls actually come from schools when class is in session. Of the calls that CYFD goes on to investigate, only 28 percent are substantiated.

“I think part of the low substantiation rate is that not everything coming through is a legitimate concern about child abuse, but they say the right things on the phone so we can’t call them a liar from the intake,” Williams said.

Policing the reporting system is exceedingly difficult. Suspicions of child abuse are often highly subjective, making it nearly impossible for a parent to prove that a call was made in bad faith.

False reports will continue

Educators are in a unique position to spot children in danger, and they play an indispensable role in the state’s child welfare system. Following multiple high-profile child abuse cases in recent years, CYFD has strongly encouraged teachers to report their suspicions, however small.

Many teachers have students who are at high risk of danger — from hunger, drug abuse or domestic violence — and are acutely aware of the signs of potential abuse and neglect, as well as the consequences of not reporting. If there’s a question, teachers interviewed for this story said, it’s better to err on the side of caution and call CYFD.

“The pressure on teachers to report is enormous,” said Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation. “It’s my duty to report. If I’m wrong, that’s for the investigator to decide. But I can’t imagine a teacher reporting a family for abuse without any evidence.”

Like nurses, physicians, psychiatrists and certain members of the clergy, teachers and school administrators are legally required to report suspected child abuse to authorities. If they do not report their suspicions and a child ends up getting hurt, they can face legal consequences — and a media firestorm.

And given the extent to which CYFD and law enforcement rely on educators to warn of possible abuse, officials fear that any attempt to dissuade bad-faith reporting risks discouraging potentially valid calls — a chance the agency is loath to take given the prevalence of child abuse in New Mexico.

“There is a potential for the system to be abused, and CYFD could take a proactive role,” said CYFD Deputy Secretary Terry Locke. “But the tradeoff is that we might dissuade people from making [valid] calls. The question I have is, have these calls been enough of an issue for us that we would consider an action like that?”

Given this hands-off policy, special education advocates say false reports like the ones filed against Christy Cartwright and Harold Burch in Carrizozo will surely continue.

Principal Lindsay recently informed the parents that he “can’t guarantee” they won’t get any more school-based CYFD reports, according to a police recording obtained by Searchlight. The principal has filed a harassment complaint against them with local police and requested a restraining order.

The police department says there are no legal grounds to pursue the complaint.

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...