retired judge takes charge of troubled New Mexico child welfare agency | Local News

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Barbara Vigil’s new office on the fifth floor of the PERA building in downtown Santa Fe is not far from the space she occupied at the State Supreme Court, where she spent nine years hearing from business.

But in some ways it’s a million miles away.

Vigil, 62, is in his first weeks as the head of the state’s Department for Children, Youth and Families, one of the state government’s most scrutinized – if not criticized – agencies . As she embarked on a new career just months after deciding to step down from the bench, she said she plans to start the job following a three-pillar philosophy – transparency, collaboration and accountability – which has served her well. served in the past.

“We are public servants and we serve the people of New Mexico. And we will be as transparent as possible in this work,” Vigil said in a recent interview. “I also think that we cannot do this job alone; we have to be a team player. I am confident that the 1,700 employees of CYFD will share this value with me and work collaboratively with each other, with d ‘other branches of government and with other sister agencies. “

The challenge is immense: Vigil succeeds Brian Blalock, who resigned in August amid harsh criticism of his management of the agency; the purchase of a computer system via a contract without a call for tenders; and the department’s use of a controversial messaging app called Signal, which critics said violated open government laws.

The ministry has also come under scrutiny by the influential legislative finance committee, which has drafted several memoranda and reports urging the agency to improve its oversight, reduce staff turnover, publish more reports. and tackle the rates of repeated child abuse and death.

Members of the Legislative Assembly say they are optimistic. Vigil can bring a sense of consistency and calm to the department, which has been criticized by several administrations.

Senator Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, who has worried in the past about the department’s transparency, said she had “hopes” for Vigil’s appointment.

“She brings that experience with her, and she also brings great respect,” Kernan said. “I think this is a person who will intend to find out the truth about what is going on within the department.”

Kernan added that there remains a need for improved quality of life and care for children in the counties of southeastern New Mexico that she represents: Lea, Chaves and Eddy. But after speaking with Vigil recently, the longtime lawmaker said she believed the retired judge would run the department in a way that would provide “a sense of trust and care for our children.”

Although much of his career has been spent behind the bench, Vigil is no newbie when it comes to children’s issues.

She started as a community civil rights lawyer in Santa Fe before being elected a judge in the First Judicial District Court, where she presided over the juvenile court for 10 years. Vigil said the experience was central to his development.

During her time in juvenile court, she was instrumental in the development of regional juvenile justice councils in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties – entities that use local community support organizations, forces order and schools to develop social programs for at-risk youth.

She said she worked closely with the Children, Youth and Families Department during her tenure as a district judge. The ministry was always at the table when it came to protection, child protection and juvenile justice services, she added.

“I think this experience has allowed me to work with community stakeholders, to determine better ways to provide services to children in our community,” she said. “It’s a process that I think is important because we can’t do this job alone.”

After her stint in the juvenile court, she continued to serve in the district court for another two years. She was then elected to the Supreme Court in 2012 and was Chief Justice from 2014 to 2016.

But helping children, she says, has always been her love.

“At the end of the day, we all have to do what we have a love and a passion for,” said Vigil. “Serving vulnerable communities, children in particular, has always been my passion.

This passion, she said, arose from the loss of her mother at the age of 12, which subsequently instilled in her a strong independence, self-sufficiency and the desire to take care of others and to serve them.

The New Mexico native has lived in Santa Fe since she was in third grade. In high school, she attended St. Catherine Indian School before earning a bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of New Mexico. She graduated from UNM Law School in 1985 and began her legal career at age 25.

Throughout her legal career, Vigil said, she has always felt called to serve the community and the state in the best possible way – “as a lawyer, as a judge, as a judge and now. as secretary of a major state government agency, “she said.

Vigil recognized that the process of rebuilding the bridges between CYFD and the community it serves will need to be undertaken “one day at a time”.

Her biggest goal, she said, will be to change the culture – and deal with the heavy workload – of the department’s employees.

“We cannot be as effective as we should be without strengthening our staff and giving them the resources to do the work they are responsible for,” said Vigil.

The list of needs is long: improve retention rates, increase training and support systems, fill leadership positions, expand recruitment efforts. But the main goal, she said, is to change what employees experience when working for the department, which oversees state protection services, behavioral health services and the justice system. for minors.

“I want to bring a real sense of well-being to the agency for us as we work in this area, which can be quite difficult and emotionally taxing,” she said. “I want to make sure our employees are healthy and take care of themselves so they can do this important job.”

She said she aimed to expand the foundations of the department by increasing the number of foster families, care providers and prevention services, as well as appropriate and “culturally relevant” professional care.

With these adjustments, Vigil is focused on changing departments from scratch.

“We will be able to do a better job and minimize any negative impact a child will have as a result of our involvement,” she said. “We have to improve outcomes for children, and every time we come into contact with a family they have to be better off.”

There is no doubt that the department will be closely watched.

Representative Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, said Vigil comes into office with knowledge of the system and necessary reforms. While Dow has said she is optimistic about how Vigil will fare at CYFD, she hopes she will be able to administer an independent appeal and investigation process.

“Hopefully if something comes out of its time at CYFD, we have to have a way to hold CYFD accountable,” Dow said.

Under Blalock, the agency was able to reduce its backlog, create a new process for resolving parent grievances, and expand foster care and guardianship programs. But observers say more is needed.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who appointed Vigil to the post on Aug. 10, said the former judge had vast experience few can match.

“People across the state know her, respect her and trust her, all important qualities as we continue to strengthen the department and the services it provides to young people and families in New Mexico,” said the governor in a press release.

While she knows her actions will be watched closely, Vigil said she believes she will be able to recreate trust and connection, both with CYFD employees and with the people the agency serves.

“We have to improve outcomes for children, and every time we come in contact with a family they have to be better off,” Vigil said. “I believe these fundamental improvements will lead to lasting change within the department and allow it to improve in all areas of its service.”


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