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Fired Whistleblower Confirms New Mexico Families Agency Used Encrypted Messaging App While Neglecting Child Abuse

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A whistleblower in New Mexico’s Child, Youth, and Families Department (CYFD) revealed to The Federalist the agency used an encrypted messaging service with automatic deletion around the time of the death of a child whose abuse was brought to state attention.

Cliff W. Gilmore was fired from his role as CYFD’s public information officer in May last year along with his wife, Debra, an agency attorney, when the pair raised concerns about state use of the app, Signal. The firings became a scandal for New Mexico Democrat Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose office directed state agencies to use the encrypted messaging service featuring the automatic deletion of records every 10 days or sooner.

The routine deletion of staff communications erases potential for agency oversight under Inspection of Public Records (IPRA) requests. While a ruling from the New Mexico attorney general’s office in September 2020 shared with The Federalist concluded the app’s use did not technically violate the state transparency law, the office warned the government its use deleted records that would otherwise be subject to public review.

The CYFD stopped using Signal following the controversy over the termination of Cliff and Debra Gilmore, but is still using Microsoft Teams, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican. The alternative software also houses the capability to automatically delete staff records.

The deployment of encrypted messaging services with routine erasure is likely hampering comprehensive oversight into cases where potential misconduct is being investigated. Last month, a trio of attorneys filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the agency over the death of four-year-old James Dunklee in 2019. Dunklee was beaten to death by the partner of his mother’s friend the two were staying with. Zerrick Marquez now faces life behind bars after pleading guilty to intentional child abuse resulting in death.

Attorneys told Albuquerque News that strong evidence of Dunklee’s abuse was shared with state officials with the CYFD multiple times before his death in 2019. The state, however, failed to take substantive action and left Dunklee in an abusive home. Now attorneys say the agency is engaged in a cover-up deliberately erasing notes on the case.

While it was initially unclear whether the state agency was also using Signal throughout 2019 when Dunklee’s abuse was brought to the CYFD’s attention, Gilmore told The Federalist the encrypted messaging app was indeed used among staff. The app’s usage further obstructs efforts to conduct meaningful oversight in Dunklee’s case and probe possible negligence.

“I can confirm the leadership team under former Sec. [Brian] Blalock was using Slack and then Signal across the span in question,” Gilmore told The Federalist.

Blalock stepped down from Grisham’s cabinet as CYFD chief in August.

The CYFD did not respond to multiple voicemails from The Federalist requesting an interview.