Brian Blalock, who presided over a striking reduction in the backlog of complaints about New Mexico’s child welfare system but also faced criticism for allegedly retaliating against whistleblowers, has stepped down as head of the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department after more than two years in the position.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Blalock’s departure last week at the same time she named Barbara Vigil, former chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, to replace Blalock as secretary of the agency.
Despite progress in reducing the number of complaints against the child welfare agency during the time Blalock served, he and his agency had recently been sued by a pair of workers who claimed they were fired for voicing transparency concerns about the automated deletion of staff communications on the Signal app during the pandemic. Blalock was also in the spotlight over a no-bid contract awarded to the tech firm Binti to overhaul the state’s child welfare data and case management system.
Blalock, a longtime child advocate who contended he did nothing wrong, is expected to return to California, where his wife is taking on a new job.
Lujan Grisham acknowledged “administrative missteps” had occurred on Blalock’s watch but said the child welfare agency has made “incredible strides” since she was elected, such as shortening times to investigate allegations of abuse and more quickly filling vacant job openings.
She said she was confident the whistleblower lawsuit would show that the state did “nothing wrong.”
Vigil, who retired from the state Supreme Court in June, said she looked forward to the challenge of running the Department of Children, Youth and Families. She deemed it a “huge responsibility” that she was fully prepared to take on.
Vigil, a 62-year-old New Mexico native, said she brings a special sensitivity to the plight of children in the system because she lost her own mother at age 12 and was sent by her father to an Indian school.
“It was that experience of separation from our family unit that has informed me and taught me the impact that a family separation can have on one in developing and growing,” she said at a news conference.