SANTA FE, N.M. — Rhonda Goodenough, an employee of the Children, Youth and Families Department in McKinley County for more than 15 years, claims that she was already dealing with musculoskeletal pain — which her doctor said resulted from her stress-filled job as a juvenile probation and parole officer — when her supervisors allegedly took away her duties before eventually firing her a week before Christmas.
According to court documents filed in the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe County, Goodenough lost her job in retaliation for calling out so-called violations of overtime statutes, opposing decisions that sent kids to jail for minor juvenile offenses, encouraging alternative punishments for negligible offenses and speaking up for the best interests of McKinley County kids in court.
Goodenough v. CYFD also charges that Goodenough’s concerns fell on deaf ears, and that CYFD Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock never addressed her concerns. A public records search at the Santa Fe offices of CYFD shows that Blalock twice responded to Goodenough. It’s unclear if an in-depth dialogue later took place between the two.
When reached by phone, Goodenough, citing the pending litigation, declined comment. Her Albuquerque, N.M.-based attorney, Rosario D. Vega Lynn, also turned down an interview request.
“I’m not authorized to comment on this particular suit,” CYFD spokesperson Charlie Moore-Pabst said. The lawsuit was filed under the New Mexico Whistleblower Protection Act on Dec. 21, four days after Goodenough’s termination.
A majority of the complaints in the civil suit were purported to occur before Blalock took over at CYFD as cabinet secretary in January 2019. An appointee of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, Blalock is a former lawyer in the San Francisco Bay area with no government experience.
He has started to reinvent the troubled state agency by decreasing vacancy rates for its child protective services caseworkers and establishing an Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) court. He also hopes to avoid lawsuits such as Goodenough v. CYFD by changing the culture within CYFD, where staff members have been invited to participate in conversations about child welfare reform instead of left to dwell on everything that’s not working for the state’s at-risk youth.
In a comprehensive sit-down interview in mid-December, Blalock said he also wants to put the focus back on New Mexico kids and families. The question of whether CYFD could have stopped an instance of harm often takes precedence over the accounts of children and those close to them, he said.
“Sometimes absolutely tragic and completely unforeseeable accidents happen. We see this often when we conduct detailed reviews of the most disturbing cases,” Blalock said. “It makes it harder to solve the problem when we’re asking all the wrong questions. … we want to get to that point where there’s a healthy feedback loop because ultimately if we’re serving children and families well, we’ll be amplifying their voices and their narratives.”
‘It’s about time you showed up’
Forty children in the state’s foster care system as of June 2019 lived in McKinley County, out of 2,380 throughout the state, according to CYFD’s 360 Quarterly Report. It also shows that 39% of McKinley County children under 18 live in poverty, compared to 30% statewide. The county’s median household income of $30,188 from 2007 to 2011 is well below the state average of $43,872.
Working with community partners across the state, New Mexico established the state’s first ICWA Court — and only the nation’s sixth — in Bernalillo County. If a court determines that a Native American child must be separated from his or her Native parents, the legal system must adhere to the 1978 congressional law, which prioritizes foster care or adoption placement with Native families.
Marie Ward, Second Judicial District Court judge; David Eisenberg, chief judge of the Taos Pueblo Tribal Court; and Special Master Catherine Begaye, presiding officer, are leading the court, which opened on Jan. 1. According to Census Bureau population estimates from July 1, 2019, 79.1% of McKinley County’s population are comprised of American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Blalock said it’s part of an overall effort by CYFD to work with the state’s pueblos and tribal leaders.
“The conversations with the tribes have been incredible,” he said. “We’ve been told, ‘It’s about time you showed up. Let’s work together as long as you’re listening to us.’ I think we have this awesome window to make real progress.”
This story is part of a Youth Today project on foster care in New Mexico. It’s made possible in part by the May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust. Youth Today is solely responsible for the content and maintains editorial independence.