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Retired court justice to take reins of child welfare agency

August 10, 2021 GMT
Recently retired state Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Vigil, right, appears at a news conference on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in Santa Fe, N.M. to help announce her appointment to lead the state's foster care and child welfare system as the next secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, center, praised Vigil's commitment to public service and the child wellness. Mariana Padilla, left, will will lead the agency through the end of September with the departure of agency Secretary Brian Blalock. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
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Recently retired state Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Vigil, right, appears at a news conference on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in Santa Fe, N.M. to help announce her appointment to lead the state's foster care and child welfare system as the next secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, center, praised Vigil's commitment to public service and the child wellness. Mariana Padilla, left, will will lead the agency through the end of September with the departure of agency Secretary Brian Blalock. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
1 of 2
Recently retired state Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Vigil, right, appears at a news conference on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in Santa Fe, N.M. to help announce her appointment to lead the state's foster care and child welfare system as the next secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, center, praised Vigil's commitment to public service and the child wellness. Mariana Padilla, left, will will lead the agency through the end of September with the departure of agency Secretary Brian Blalock. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The head of the state’s foster care and child welfare system was replaced Tuesday as New Mexico grapples with the effects student isolation during the pandemic and wages a longstanding struggle to improve childhood wellbeing.

Recently retired Supreme Court Justice Barbara J. Vigil will take the reins of the Children, Youth and Families Department on Oct. 1, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced at a Tuesday news conference.

Vigil previously worked on issues of juvenile justice and recidivism with the Republican administration of former Gov. Susana Martinez, leading a multi-agency review in 2017 that called for more services that prevent young people with infractions from reverting to crime.

Lujan Grisham highlighted Vigil’s roots in the community as a native of New Mexico and lengthy career in public service, including a decadelong stint in the state Children’s Court division.

Vigil briefly recalled her own personal encounter with family disruption as a 12-year-old, when the death of her mother marked a sudden transition from life in a home with five siblings to Catholic boarding school.

“That understanding will enable me to come to the table with a perspective of service and understanding that the decisions that we make in government about children and how we protect them and ensure that they’re safe is made with the utmost transparency and with the utmost commitment to their well-being,” Vigil said.

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She’ll take over an agency with more than 1,000 full-time employees and an annual general fund budget of $170 million, where challenges abound.

New Mexico this year ranked 49th among states in broad measures of child wellbeing from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that measures childhood access to education, health care, economic resources and social stability at home. The pandemic upended access to classrooms and community services for children.

The new appointment marks the departure of agency Secretary Brian Blalock, a former San Francisco Bay Area lawyer and child welfare advocate who is expected to return to California to support his wife’s career.

Blalock, appointed at the outset of the Lujan Grisham administration in 2019, helped vastly reduce a backlog of investigations into child abuse and neglect reports as the agency also expanded its employment of front-line workers at its protective services division.

The state also has increased services for infants and expanded “kinship care” that places neglected or abandoned children with extended family or close family friends, according to an agency progress report.

Blalock’s tenure was marred by concerns about the agency’s use of an auto-deleting messaging app.

Two former officials with the Children, Youth and Families Department have sued the state under whistleblower protection laws after raising concerns that automatically deleted messages ran afoul of state record retention laws. The agency has shifted to new software.

Vigil said the agency must strike a balance with public disclosures and safeguarding the privacy and welfare of children.

“We also must be open and responsible to the public with respect to how we investigate and the processes that we follow to make sure that we are caring for the public’s trust,” Vigil said.

Other key Cabinet positions are in transition, as Lujan Grisham runs for reelection in 2022.

The state is still looking for new permanent secretaries to lead the departments of Health and Workforce Solutions. Last month, the education secretary was replaced and a new head of public safety was named.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.