New Mexico Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s policies requiring state employees to automatically delete their communications after 10 days may complicate efforts to investigate the death of a child whose abuse was repeatedly brought to state attention.
Last month, attorneys in a wrongful death lawsuit filed against Grisham’s Child, Youth, and Families Department (CYFD) argued the agency engaged in a cover-up to conceal caseworker conduct related to deceased four-year-old James Dunklee. According to Albuquerque News, Dunklee was beaten to death by the partner of his mother’s friend they were staying with. Zerrick Marquez now faces life behind bars after a guilty plea to intentional child abuse resulting in death.
In 2019, however, attorneys claim the CYFD had a chance to save Dunklee from a torrent of home abuse. Two months before Dunklee’s death, the police and CYFD were brought to urgent care where Dunklee was found with multiple bruises and injured genitals, Albuquerque News reported. Dunklee told police and CYFD officials he was being touched inappropriately by one of his mother’s boyfriends.
It was not the first time child services came across strong evidence of abuse. When Dunklee was three, according to the lawsuit reviewed by Albuquerque News, “CYFD found him living barricaded in his room and bruised.”
“When he was four, APD and CYFD were called again, finding James was bruised and not potty trained. James would tell police his mother’s boyfriend was hitting him,” the local paper reported.
“CYFD time after time after time, referral after referral failed to take custody of James,” Sara Crecca with the Law Firm of Alexander D. Crecca, P.C. Attorneys told Albuquerque News.
Crecca and her colleagues are now accusing CYFD of a cover-up. The agency managers “directed the investigator to erase her notes before entering them in the official CYFD system,” Crecca said, believing critical evidence of government misconduct is now gone.
It remains unclear whether the CYFD was using the encrypted messaging app Signal at the time, which allows for automatic deletion of messages after 10 days. In May of last year, the agency terminated a pair of senior employees who raised concerns about the app’s use in the agency. The employees complained that the policy kept staff communications concealed from Inspection of Public Records (IPRA) requests.
The two firings became a scandal for Grisham, up for re-election this November, as her office directed state agencies to use the encrypted messaging service. The CYFD stopped using Signal following the initial controversy, but still reportedly used Microsoft Teams, which also features the automatic deletion of encrypted messages, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.
The CYFD did not respond to multiple voicemails from The Federalist requesting an interview over whether the agency was using encrypted messaging services with automatic deletion in the months before Dunklee’s death.
Patrick Brenner, the president of the New Mexican-based Southwest Public Policy Institute, said Grisham’s commitment to transparency has been problematic.
“I have been increasingly concerned about Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s anti-transparent administration,” Brenner told The Federalist.
“Our repeated calls for the administration to acknowledge the public’s right-to-know have been met with silence,” Brenner added. “As a rule, the government is only anti-transparent when they have something to hide. Now that we have the death of a young child being covered up by CYFD, it’s becoming increasingly clear that this might be the case.”