New Mexico child welfare agency seeks to change technology and culture

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Fired staff members said a culture of punishment for dissent threatened an upgrade to the agency’s data system critical to federal funding and exacerbated a recent public relations crisis related to the use of the encrypted messaging application.

Debra Gilmore was the director of the Children’s Rights Bureau until she was fired on May 6 along with her husband, Cliff, who worked as the agency’s spokesperson. The Searchlight New Mexico Investigation Reporting Website first reported the dismissal of the Gilmores.

She said the ministry reprimanded her for “failing to establish productive and professional working relationships”, including with project managers tasked with upgrading the protection information system. The Agency’s Childhood, a database essential to the operation of New Mexico’s foster care system and to meeting federal data reporting requirements. .

Debra Gilmore said project managers were upset because she pushed them to report on the project’s sprawling scope and nebulous deadlines.

“I just couldn’t get a satisfactory answer to the ‘how’ – how are we going to do it? Said Gilmore, lawyer and certified project manager with decades of experience managing social work projects.

Cliff Gilmore said he raised concerns about using the Signal app, which in some conversations was set to delete messages every 24 hours.

The ministry eventually stopped using the app after a report by Searchlight New Mexico uncovered the practice and fueled criticism over the possibility that public documents were destroyed.

“Our office is pleased that CYFD has stopped using the app, and we are conducting a review to ensure that the agency is complying with the law and best practices for retaining public information,” Matt said. Baca, spokesperson for the New Mexico attorney general. Office.

Cliff Gilmore said he and his wife were aggressively recruited by the child welfare agency last year because of their vast experience, including decades of work as spokespersons for the army where he supervised a team of 65 press attachés serving a marine force of 55,000 men. .

The couple say Debra Gilmore was hired in December, due to her decades of experience in state government and NGOs, including leading a foster care organization in Oregon.

“I had never, until then, been in a room where if I said ‘I think we have a problem here’ the response would be anything other than ‘Okay tell me more’ “, did he declare. “But I got, ‘Oh you’re new, you don’t understand.’ “

Instead, he said his advice not to use the Signal app and the automatic removal feature was ignored, although the agency eventually stopped using the app.

The ministry disputed nearly every aspect of the couple’s account of the couple’s problems at the agency.

“What the Gilmores have and claim is misinformed and is not based on the experience or expertise of the New Mexico State Government, State Procurement Laws, IPRA state and record retention laws, or especially the technological needs of CYFD, ”spokesperson Charlie Moore -Pabst said. “It is unfortunate, during their very short time in the government of New Mexico, that they chose to criticize the operations of the CYFD without all the facts and without understanding New Mexico law.

The agency has struggled in the past with employees claiming to have suffered retaliation.

“We welcome whistleblowers, we welcome lawyers and letters of request. We welcome any opportunity to improve CYFD, ”Blalock said in the May 17 interview. “There is a tension between whistleblower allegations and the fact that an employee is just not functioning.”

the ministry said that the technology upgrade is essential to meet federal requirements, both for effective case management and for organizing and sending data to the federal government and the public. But the department said it was on schedule for the next round of software upgrades.

The $ 44.9 million project has experienced delays in approving federal funding, threatening the budget, according to a recent report on the status of the Legislative Finance Committee’s IT project for the first quarter of fiscal 2021 Of nine state agency IT projects reviewed, that of the Department of Children, Youth and Families was the most at risk of failure.

The current system makes it difficult for the department to report required data to the federal government and hinders public access. When the Associated Press attempted to compile a 50-state survey of a dozen child protection indicators, New Mexico was one of the 14 states that failed to produce the data in weeks and for free.

Debra Gilmore said that without answering the tough questions that she believes have disciplined her, the software project will fail to improve case management. “I am concerned because this is an opportunity to adapt the next generation of software to the needs of the children and families served,” she said.

Cliff Gilmore added that he would expect policies that deal with employee communication and data to be clearly written and accessible to the public, but that does not appear to be the case.

Although Blalock said the agency has policies and procedures in place to prevent the destruction of documents that should be kept, the ministry has confirmed that there is no official policy on the use of Signal. in particular. It also does not have a guidance document on whistleblower protections, relying only on state statutes.

Moore-Pabst said the department recently updated its retaliation policy, although it focuses more on employees participating in formal investigations rather than dissenting opinions.

On May 25, the department began offering walk-in whistleblower ethics training, optional for senior executives and mandatory for some responders.

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Attanasio is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative corps. Report for America is a national, non-profit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover undercover issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

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This story corrects the location of a foster care organization led by Debra Gilmore.

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