Inside the office building of the very state agency charged with protecting children, a 14-year-old foster youth allegedly sexually assaulted a 10-year-old foster child in December.

The assault occurred in a bathroom at the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department’s main Albuquerque office building, according to an Albuquerque Police Department incident report. The complex on Indian School Road houses the CYFD cabinet secretary and deputy secretary’s satellite offices, as well as the call center that screens reports of child abuse and neglect.

Foster youth routinely sleep in the Albuquerque office when caseworkers cannot find them a bed elsewhere, according to children’s attorneys and CYFD employees.

The alleged perpetrator, a teenage boy who was taken into the foster care system because of abuse or neglect, has a history of sexual misconduct, according to two CYFD employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He was supposed to be supervised while around other youth in the building, the employees said.

“We can confirm there was an incident that is pending internal and external investigation to ensure that proper placement protocols were followed,” CYFD Cabinet Secretary Barbara J. Vigil told Searchlight New Mexico in a statement. “CYFD staff are clear that children are not to be placed in offices unless every other option is exhausted, and any improper action will yield consequences.” In situations like these, “law enforcement are immediately contacted and CYFD works closely with them to ensure accountability,” Vigil said. 

The teen and the younger boy were discovered in the bathroom by a staff member on Dec. 5, the police report said. After the alleged assault occurred, the teenage suspect ran from the building and CYFD staff called police, according to an internal agency email shared with Searchlight.

According to the police report, the victim was taken for a SANE exam, a specialized medical examination for sexual assault victims. The investigation is ongoing and as of Jan. 31, charges had not been filed. 

CYFD has promised not to house children in offices. In February 2020, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration settled a landmark class-action lawsuit, agreeing to wide-ranging reforms to the state’s foster care system. Among them, New Mexico committed to ending the practice of housing foster youth in temporary settings like youth homeless shelters or CYFD offices, where they can’t receive the services and support they need. Under the settlement agreement, no child could be placed in an agency office except under “extraordinary circumstances.”

Progress has been made, state officials told Searchlight last fall. New Mexico has also created plans to recruit more foster families, according to monitors for the legal settlement. 

But three years after signing the agreement, the promise to put all children in safe, stable homes has not materialized. Kids experiencing mental health crises still sleep on cots or mattresses on office floors, according to an October 2022 investigation by Searchlight and ProPublica.

“It’s dehumanizing,” said Rudy Bolt, who lived in the CYFD office building off and on between 2018 and August 2022, when he aged out of foster care. One stay lasted nearly three months — part of it spent sleeping in one of the building’s storage closets, he recalled. “You just sit there. You wonder, am I going to stay here forever?”

Fights between kids were frequent at the office building, Bolt said. He said the fact that a sexual assault happened there was not surprising. 

“It’s a building full of teenagers who feel like the system has given up on them. That environment creates bad behavior. Of course there are going to be problems.”

The Dec. 5 incident is the second time in the span of a year that law enforcement has investigated a sexual assault at a CYFD facility housing foster children, according to police reports. In December 2021, officers investigated another case of a teenager allegedly assaulting another foster youth at the Albuquerque Girls Reintegration Center, a former halfway house for juvenile offenders that CYFD temporarily repurposed as a group home for foster kids.

This photo, taken in early 2022, shows a room where kids were sleeping at the main CYFD office complex in Albuquerque. It was taken by a CYFD employee assigned to supervise one of the youth housed there. Credit: Provided to ProPublica by Sara Crecca

Nowhere to go

CYFD has struggled for years to find foster homes for teenagers. The investigation by Searchlight and ProPublica revealed that the agency repeatedly shuffles teens between the Albuquerque office and youth homeless shelters, including those with developmental disabilities, PTSD, severe depression and other serious mental health diagnoses. The shelters are licensed to briefly house runaways and youth with nowhere to go. They don’t provide psychiatric care and aren’t equipped to care for high-needs teens.

Kids placed in shelters sometimes spiral into mental health crises and run away, get arrested or are taken to hospitals for psychiatric evaluations, the investigation found — often ending up back at the CYFD office, sometimes for days, weeks or longer, until a caseworker can arrange another shelter placement.

The alleged perpetrator of the sexual assault was among this group: He had been the subject of at least eight calls to 911 at shelters in Albuquerque and Santa Fe over a two-month period ending in early 2022, according to police data analyzed by Searchlight and ProPublica. One of those calls was for a suicide threat; others were for aggressive behavior and running away.

Police received dozens of calls from CYFD’s address on Indian School Road between 2020 and 2021, according to 911 dispatch data for that period.

Some of the calls were for children in serious psychiatric distress, including youth who were suicidal or violent. One police report described a 16-year-old boy hitting a security guard in the head and allegedly trying to take his gun; another described a 17-year-old girl with a history of suicidal behavior who became agitated and started hallucinating. When police arrived, she asked if there was an officer who could adopt her.  

Children are only further traumatized by being housed in shelters, offices and other inappropriate settings, said Sara Crecca, an Albuquerque-based children’s attorney who was co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that resulted in the 2020 legal settlement. “What could be more demoralizing to a child who has already lost family, than to face the fact that they have no one to take care of them? These children deserve to be nurtured in a loving foster home and to thrive instead of simply survive.”

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Ed Williams

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...