artistic shadow of sad child on bunk

Foster children are caught in a cycle of abuse

By Ed Williams / Searchlight New Mexico

​​One evening last December, a 14-year-old foster youth sexually assaulted a child four years younger than himself in the Albuquerque office of New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department. It happened, according to police, in a bathroom near the facility’s outdoor playground, as a CYFD supervisor was chatting on a personal phone call.

The incident was reported to State Police about an hour later, when a CYFD worker dialed 911. “Something sexual happened” between two children, she told the dispatcher.

Though the 10-year-old was plainly traumatized, CYFD began making arrangements to transfer him to a youth homeless shelter in Santa Fe. Shortly after his arrival at the shelter, he broke down and threatened to kill himself and a caseworker, according to several people with direct knowledge of the incident. 

It was then that CYFD checked the boy into a hospital.

The sexual assault of a child in CYFD’s office, first reported by Searchlight New Mexico in February, set off alarm bells among lawmakers and advocates, leading to calls for more oversight of CYFD in the legislature. 

Foster youth — in particular, teenagers with serious mental health conditions — are routinely placed in dangerous situations while in state custody. Across the state, CYFD consistently houses its highest-needs kids in inappropriate placements such as youth homeless shelters or agency offices, resulting in near-daily calls to 911.

Like the 10-year-old, they can face danger wherever they land. The same is true for the alleged perpetrator, who sometimes goes by the name John. As a child, he was placed in the care of a foster parent who would later plead guilty to seven charges of sexually abusing children, according to court records.

“His safety has been compromised in CYFD custody,” said his attorney, Amanda Aragon. “He has defenses and would love to comment in depth. However, the closed CYFD system and law prohibit us from commenting and allowing him to defend himself properly.”

playground merry-go-round in black and white
Playground at the CYFD Pinetree office in Albuquerque
By Nadav Soroker / Searchlight New Mexico

CYFD knew of previous allegations against suspect

When CYFD sent John to live in its Albuquerque headquarters last year, staff were aware that he had a history of dangerous behavior, according to employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He was supposed to be supervised while in the company of other youth in the building, the employees said. 

Yet within hours of arrival, he assaulted the 10-year-old, according to an analysis of police documents.

In the days leading up to that incident, John resided at Summer House, a specialized group home in Albuquerque for hard-to-place foster youth. While there, Summer employees reported that he had sexually harassed or assaulted several teenage residents, according to New Mexico State Police files released to Searchlight through an open records request.

John would “constantly sexually harass” a female resident, and make inappropriate sexual comments toward yet another female in the home, the police report said. In one instance, he threatened to cut the throat of a resident unless that youth masturbated in front of him, according to police documents. 

None of the teenagers confirmed the allegations against John when later interviewed by police. CYFD declined to answer questions from Searchlight about what safety protocols should have been put into place after learning of the allegations.

“The children involved are safe and are receiving necessary services,” CYFD spokesperson Rob Johnson said in an email. “The department continues to coordinate its response with investigators from the New Mexico State Police. There are multiple investigations into this incident, and we will be reviewing those investigations to improve outcomes for children in state custody.”

Suspect, victims had long histories of trauma

By the time John and the four youths — the ones he allegedly assaulted or harassed — met up last year, each one of them had experienced some form of major trauma in their previous foster placements.

One of the four was the subject of a 2018 investigation by Searchlight that detailed a pattern of abuses in New Mexico’s treatment foster care system. When he was 11 years old, he was placed in the home of a Farmington foster parent who abused him and his sister, at one point beating him so brutally that he had to be hospitalized.

CYFD repeatedly renewed the license of the company that hired the abusive foster parent, despite finding multiple safety violations. The boy’s former foster mother, Hope Graciano, is currently serving an 18-year sentence for felony child abuse in the case.

Five years later, this same boy ended up as John’s roommate at Summer House, where John allegedly threatened to cut his throat. 

But John also had a history of dangerous foster placements. As a child, CYFD entrusted him and his sister to Familyworks Inc., a now-defunct for-profit company that specialized in the placement and treatment of children with severe mental health or medical needs. Familyworks placed the siblings in the home of Clarence Garcia, a foster parent who was later discovered to be a serial pedophile, according to a 2018 police report. (That report does not indicate whether John or his sister were assaulted there.)

By the time police discovered that Garcia presented a danger to children, he had already sexually assaulted at least six young foster girls, according to police and court records.

Garcia, now 66, has pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual contact of a minor. In January 2023, he was sentenced in state court to five to 20 years of supervised release. He was back in court four months later for violating the terms of his parole. 

One of Garcia’s victims was a 10-year-old girl referred to in First Judicial Court documents as M.M. In 2018, she sued Garcia and Acadia Healthcare, the parent company of Familyworks, alleging that it knew of Garcia’s criminal activity. Nonetheless, the lawsuit claims, Familyworks placed M.M. in his home, where Garcia allegedly raped her repeatedly. That suit is ongoing.

Four years later, CYFD placed M.M. in the same group home as John, according to police reports. When interviewed by police about allegations that John had sexually harassed her, she told officers that she was just trying to move forward with her life. 

Ed Williams, a Searchlight investigative reporter, covers child welfare, social justice and other issues. In 2022, he was selected for ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network to produce stories about abuses in the foster care system and the devastating impacts on children. Before joining Searchlight, Ed was a reporter in both the United States and Latin America, working for print, digital and radio outlets, including seven years in public radio. His numerous journalism awards include a 2020 First Amendment award and 2019 local accountability reporting award from the News Leaders Association. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.