When former New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil retired from the bench in June, she wasn’t sure what the next step was, but one thing was certain: She wanted to move on from the presidency of the affairs of vulnerable communities to their active defense.
In October, just four months later, she signed on as secretary of the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (CYFD).
“I knew I was ready to return to the public service,” says Vigil of his decision to lead the agency of 1,700 employees, which has had a difficult year. “Some things cannot wait.”
Vigil replaced former cabinet secretary Brian Blalock, who resigned his post in August amid controversy, including oversee the ministry’s use of Signal encrypted messaging app and enter a IT system contract without a call for tenders (a CYFD move reversed in October).
Two former employees filed a whistleblower complaint over the summer, alleging that they had suffered reprisals for raising concerns.
The department is also continued for his handling of a case that returned four children to allegedly abusive parents.
Earlier this year, The CYFD received a set of recommendations of the State Legislative Finance Committee to improve the way it reports child abuse data and address the high turnover of staff in the department.
Transparency, collaboration and accountability
From the blue sofa in his office, located in downtown Santa Fe, Vigil emerges as a soft, understated voice in the face of his department’s many challenges. She said her leadership philosophy is based on three principles: transparency, collaboration and accountability.
“My goal is to make sure that if a family is in contact with CYFD, they are better off,” says Vigil.
Child protection advocates and lawyers in New Mexico hope Vigil will rise to the challenge. Colleagues and observers describe her as a caring listener who has worked diligently on behalf of the children of the state.
Ezra Spitzer, executive director of the New Mexico Children’s Advocacy Networks, believes Vigil was a good fit for the job given her experience and respectful position in the community.
He adds, however, that she and the ministry will be most successful if they engage in community engagement.
“It’s a very difficult job, and one person cannot change all the things that need to change,” says Spitzer. “She is going to need a team of very qualified and talented people around her and a partnership from the community.”
Like any cabinet secretary, Vigil says she will ensure her goals for the department match those of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration.
State Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino, former social worker and deputy chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, wonders how Vigil will navigate the often slow cogs of bureaucracy.
“She saw the problems; she knows what she would like to do, ”said Ortiz y Pino, a Democrat representing Albuquerque. “How do you translate that by moving the bureaucratic machinery in a way that actually produces the results you want?” “
Vigil, who has spent much of her career working on children’s issues, says she knows the work takes “stamina and tenacity.”
Born and raised in New Mexico, Vigil’s family moved to Santa Fe when she was in her third grade. She received an undergraduate degree in accounting from New Mexico State University at Las Cruces before attending law school at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque.
Although Vigil says she has always been passionate about serving vulnerable communities, it wasn’t until she started working in a company in Las Cruces in 1988 that she discovered her vocation for children’s issues. . Vigil was tasked with representing a mother who sought custody of her two sons after a despised ex-husband accused her of abusing the children.
“Here is a mother who got dragged into a system because of an angry ex-spouse,” Vigil recalls. “It really changed the way I viewed the child welfare system in New Mexico. I became very interested in trying to make things better for children and people like her.
After opening her own law firm in Santa Fe, she served on New Mexico’s first judicial district court for 12 years and presided over juvenile court. During her stay, she played a key role in establishing the Juvenile Justice Commissions in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos. Councils bring together local leaders develop programs for young people at risk of entering the juvenile justice system.
In 2012, Vigil was elected to the New Mexico Supreme Court, where she served for nine years.
Despite her qualifications and experience in family law and child protection, Vigil says she continues to learn from the inside out how the ministry works, especially when it comes to its internal challenges.
Trust through communication
In May, two CYFD employees have been fired in what they claim is an act of retaliation for raising concerns about the department. Later in July, at least half a dozen former employees said they were reprimanded or fired for expressing concerns about the department’s IT system upgrade, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.
Vigil says she hopes to build trust through regular communication with staff.
“I’ve spent the past six weeks attending meetings and listening to people who know a lot more about the work of the department than I do,” says Vigil. “Over time, I will become more informed about internal operations, but at least for the future, I will spend a lot of time listening and learning.”
Vigil has already started working on some key issues. One of the priorities, she said, is to address the settlement reached in the case of Kevin S. v. Jacobsen, a lawsuit alleging that CYFD traumatized a young person in their care.
Under the regulations, the State agreed to adopt several new practices to ensure the well-being of children in the system, but the implementation plan has been slow, says Bette Fleishman, a lawyer at Pegasus Legal Services for Children, one of the firms monitoring its progress.
“We know it’s going to take years, and the best people should be working on it and putting in the resources to make it happen,” Fleishman said, adding that she was optimistic about their goals under Vigil, which has already met the teams. implementation. .
In order to carry out the implementation plan, Vigil says she hopes to build a strong workforce at CYFD and calls on the legislature for an increase in the department’s core budget to fund positions in the service divisions. protection and behavioral health.
“A priority for me is to ensure that we have adequate staff throughout New Mexico for this job,” said Vigil. “I see huge challenges for the department, but that doesn’t take away from the unwavering commitment and dedication that I have seen in the thousands of employees who do this job day in and day out. “