Nearly three years ago, a private foster care company named La Familia-Namaste closed its doors following revelations of horrific child abuse. The company, which cared for some of the most vulnerable children in state custody, had sent a brother and sister to the Farmington home of foster parent Hope Graciano, who beat the children so brutally that the boy had to be hospitalized.
It seemed as if the case was resolved in Sept. 2019, when Graciano received an 18-year prison sentence for felony child abuse and other charges. But in some ways, the case is just beginning. A sweeping lawsuit filed against La Familia-Namaste now places blame squarely on the nonprofit and on the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, which knew the abuse was occurring in the Graciano home but took no action to protect the children, the complaint alleges.
The lawsuit, filed by the law office of Martinez, Hart, Sanchez and Romero — an Albuquerque firm behind some of the state’s most consequential child welfare cases — charges that staff at La Familia-Namaste engaged in “negligent, unconscionable, and shocking acts,” resulting in a monthslong ordeal of abuse that for the boy included beatings with a metal piece of a bed frame; upon his hospitalization, doctors feared he had a fractured skull. The company then conspired to cover up the incidents, declaring that the children had accidentally hurt themselves or were “self-harming,” the suit alleges.
CYFD had “actual knowledge” that at least one of the children was being injured in the Graciano household but did not intervene — even after receiving multiple reports of suspected abuse from teachers and others, according to the lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of the children’s guardian ad litem.
“All throughout this process, the people in charge of these kids’ safety just passed the buck to someone else without ever actually looking to see what was happening,” said Julio Romero, one of the lead plaintiffs’ attorneys in the suit. “If CYFD or the leadership at La Familia had actually looked into the school’s concerns or other reports against Graciano, they would have seen the kids were in real danger.”
The allegations are among a series of recent challenges for CYFD. On Sept. 23, the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee published a memo slamming the leadership for under-reporting its data on abuse and neglect and for lack of transparency, lack of oversight and failing to reduce the percentage of children suffering from repeated maltreatment. The allegations also come just as CYFD assumes new leadership, with former State Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Vigil stepping in to replace secretary Brian Blalock, who resigned in August after a tempestuous 18-month reign.
CYFD spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst did not respond to requests for comment. Attorneys for La Familia-Namaste employees also declined to comment, citing a policy of not commenting on litigation.
The abuse at Graciano’s home brought intense media and legal scrutiny to La Familia-Namaste and to New Mexico’s system of treatment foster care — a specialized branch of care reserved for the most traumatized children in state custody and run by private nonprofit and for-profit companies.
In May 2018, Searchlight New Mexico published an investigation detailing a widespread pattern of abuse within La Familia-Namaste and other private treatment foster care companies — companies that train, vet, license and oversee foster families to care for children who have been placed in CYFD custody. In any given year, more than 900 kids cycle through these programs, according to a 2017 Legislative Finance Committee report. Each kid placed in treatment foster care costs the state some $25,000 per year — money partially shared with the foster care company and the foster parent.
As detailed in Searchlight’s investigation, “A Pattern of Failures,” CYFD routinely renewed the licenses of treatment foster care companies even after discovering they’d committed a multitude of safety violations, such as failures to complete home inspections and conduct criminal background checks of foster parents. La Familia-Namaste was among the companies whose license had been repeatedly renewed despite multiple violations of the department’s safety rules.
But in the years since La Familia-Namaste’s closure, questions about the Graciano case have lingered. Most prominently among them: How is it possible that CYFD and La Familia-Namaste were unaware of Graciano’s long history of violent behavior toward children? “Anybody that looked hard enough would have seen a pattern of conduct,” said a Farmington police detective who investigated the case and uncovered 30 years of severe abuse.
The ongoing lawsuit offers new insight. The company, the suit alleges, was indeed aware that Graciano was a danger to children. In fact, plaintiffs’ attorneys claim that La Familia-Namaste had planned to revoke Graciano’s foster care license in 2017, after supervisors became aware of multiple incidents that showed she was unfit to be a foster parent.
But in June of that year, the company abruptly reversed course and reissued Graciano’s license, without completing all the mandated steps. The company failed to “ensure that all requirements were met to qualify the family for a renewed license,” according to legal filings. The brother and sister were placed in Graciano’s home immediately afterward.
Terrified to go home
The court filings detail a series of incidents in which Graciano beat her foster children, sometimes in public. In each case, the suit claims, La Familia staff failed to take appropriate action and even worked to cover up the ongoing abuse.
Over a period of three months, teachers at Animas Elementary School grew suspicious that the sister of the boy who was eventually hospitalized was being physically abused in the Graciano home. Teachers’ notes from the time documented that the girl, then 7 years old, repeatedly came to school with injuries, including a black eye, bruises to her face and ear, and a crushed finger; she was terrified to go home, school documents obtained by Searchlight show.
When school staff informed Graciano of their concerns and filed a report of suspected child abuse with CYFD, managers at La Familia drafted a document claiming that the girl was hurting herself. They then had the girl sign the paper and presented it to school staff and CYFD as an explanation for her injuries. CYFD ruled the school’s claim as unsubstantiated and did not remove the girl or her brother from Graciano’s home.
The lawsuit in Second Judicial District Court seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages. It also asks for policy changes and training “to address the grave failures” in the foster care system and protect children from future harm.