NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – One after another after another New Mexico children are being killed through abuse. Some tortured in secret, others had someone stand up for them, only for the system to fail them.

In many cases, New Mexico Child Youth and Families Department (CYFD) stepped in and made the decision to return a child to their parents, or keep them with them despite concerns or allegations of abuse, and it ended in the child’s death. That’s what family claims happened in the case of 4-year-old James Dunklee killed in December 2019.

We can’t confirm that because of confidentiality laws but it does raise the question: Why does this keep happening?

We continue our series to find out.

“This is not acceptable. I don’t really care who is in charge of CYFD. (I) don’t care if they are republican or democrat or independent or whatever we need answers. And we need to make sure these things don’t happen again,” says Senator Michael Padilla (D) for Bernalillo County.

Senator Michael Padilla has been fighting for years to improve CYFD and the lives of children but he, and the rest of us, continue to hear the terrible stories of child abuse that lead to death – Omaree Varela, Leland Valdez, Victoria Martens and now James Dunklee.

While reports from CYFD have not been released to the public, we do know CYFD and authorities had some dealings with these families before the deaths. And, the children stayed in the homes.

“On a daily basis, it’s hard for me.” 

Andrew Valdez’s 3-year-old son Leland died in 2011 two days after he was rushed to the hospital unconscious. An autopsy shows he was beaten and suffered injuries all over his body over a long period of time. Valdez had reported seeing signs of abuse.

CYFD assigned an investigator but the boy stayed in the care of his mother, Tabitha Van Holtz, and boyfriend Steven Gallegos. Van Holtz and Gallegos were convicted and spent time in prison for the killing.

“He never got to see his first day of kindergarten, he never got to join football,” Angela Valdez, Leland’s stepmom told KRQE News 13 in 2016.

CYFD Issues 

It wouldn’t be the last deadly child abuse case where CYFD’s actions to keep the child in the home would be questioned. “With the way federal laws work, we are held accountable for at the state level to be sure (we’re) doing everything we can to keep children in the home of a parent,” says Secretary NM Children Youth & Families Dept. Brian Blalock.

CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock was not in office when Leland Valdez was killed but he was in December 2019 when 4-year-old James Dunklee died, allegedly at the hands of his mother’s roommate, Zerrick Marquez. According to a police report, CYFD enacted a safety plan after allegations of abuse surfaced against Marquez, but CYFD kept the child in the home.

Blalock says he can’t release further details on the Dunklee case until an investigation is complete, “I get that you can’t predict human behavior but you know, in cases where a child dies everyone asks why didn’t they see this?”

The Secretary says there is a lot to the process the public doesn’t know about, “removing a child from a parent: imagine a person come and removing (your child) from your home and saying you can not see them anymore. That is such a huge decision… (you) can’t do it lightly. It also happens to be a constitutionally protected right for parents to be able to care for their child and have their child in their home so that is not a new push, that is how the child welfare system works.”

In New Mexico, it’s not CYFD workers who remove a child. “We go out and we see a huge risk and say we have to remove this child right now, what we have to do is call police and… police dept individual run with individual policies that can be very difficult for our workers to navigate,” says Blalock.

Blalock, who came from New York and was appointed CYFD Cabinet Secretary 14 months ago, says he has seen many areas where the system could work better, “one of the things I noticed is that our workers on the ground didn’t have the structured tool(s) in order to figure out how to best assess risk and safety factors. That is a horrible situation to be in.”

Blalock says his office is already working on improving tools that will use data to better assess safety factors and a system that triggers supervisory input when it’s a close call or especially difficult case.

Senator Michael Padilla and CYFD have been working to better incorporate these family members into the process, “a lot of the time fifty percent or more of the time is other family members who call CYFD, or authorities, and said there is trouble in (the) house and that (a) child is in danger.”

Senate Bill 28 which was signed this year allows family members to become foster parents immediately if they pass all the requirements and can meet the child’s needs. “If a child can’t safely be at home or not home and neglect – or mom (is) having (a) hard time getting kid to school, what we want is grandma because that is how families work. New Mexico (has a) rich history of that. New Mexico has 13,000 kids who are in an informal caregiver setting where primary caregiver is non-parent relative,” says Blalock

And, the secretary says there is research to support this system saying that where children are most successful is when the reunifying ends up in permanent kin guardianship. But not every case is the same, not every case has a simple answer.

“I think it’s really important that we as New Mexicans look at each other and understand that we have a serious problem here. The serious problem is our children are drying. We can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. We can’t pretend (it’s) somebody else’s problem,” says Senator Padilla.

Not every case has a happy ending – a sign more needs to be done to which the Secretary of CYFD says they are constantly looking for ways to improve.

CYFD’s Broken System