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A former state child, youth and family investigator testified that she unsuccessfully tried to remove a 4-year-old boy from an abusive and potentially life-threatening family situation, and that his supervisors ordered him to leave. ‘delete and edit his case notes after he was killed by his mother’s roommate.
The cover-up allegations are the latest in the ongoing civil lawsuit brought against CYFD by the estate of James Dunklee Cruz. The boy had been the subject of 10 reports of child abuse or neglect before he was found unconscious on December 10, 2019 in an apartment on East Central Avenue shortly after his mother left for work.
He was beaten to death by a man they were residing with, Zerrick Marquez – a man the CYFD warned the mother not to live with. Marquez pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death on May 5; he has since indicated that he wishes to withdraw his plea.
At issue in the civil case is why child protection workers never sought legal custody of the boy, even after he suffered a shoulder injury, sexual abuse and death. told police and social workers that he had been harmed by men in his mother’s life.
Video taken as James was questioned by police and the social worker shows him sitting on a table at an urgent care center with his arm in a sling, politely answering questions and engaging with adults. Two months later, he died of new injuries.
Instead of placing James in CYFD custody for the last three months of his life, CYFD workers relied on his mother to adhere to a series of “safety plans” to outline where he would live with his mother without ensure his long-term safety and well-being, the lawsuit says.
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“His body spoke for itself. The injuries speak for themselves. Along with the physical evidence, the doctors’ worries, the injuries, the stories that don’t add up, we had a four-year-old kid telling the adults he was hurt. What more do you need to know that he must be removed from this environment? said Sara Crecca, one of the lawyers who sued CYFD.
A CYFD spokesperson said Friday that the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.
The Journal did extensive reporting on the case and the claims of the lawsuit. But new details about the CYFD investigation and allegations of a CYFD cover-up surfaced during an April 25 sworn deposition by lead investigator on the case, Jessica Etoll.
Now a licensed social worker in private practice, Etoll was named as a defendant in the wrongful death lawsuit, which was filed by Crecca and attorney Rachel Berenson of Albuquerque.
The new revelations prompted attorneys to file a motion in court Thursday to amend the state district court’s lawsuit. A copy of the proposed amended lawsuit was filed as an exhibit.
“Mrs. Etoll knew James was being severely abused and thought CYFD should immediately take custody of the child,” according to the exhibit. But Etoll needed her supervisors to ask CYFD’s legal division to initiate the paperwork. to file for legal custody.
One supervisor told him to “calm down” and another, a county case manager who had the authority to approve his custody, dragged his feet but eventually relented, the exhibit says. At that time, James was nowhere to be found.
At the time of his death, the boy was in Albuquerque living with Marquez, Marquez’s girlfriend, Pamela Esparza, and his mother, Krista Cruz, who was 22 at the time.
Cruz, who had been in CYFD foster care herself, was homeless and living with different friends for months.
The Office of the Medical Investigator determined that the boy died of blunt force trauma to the head and torso. An autopsy also revealed healing jaw fractures and other healing head injuries that occurred “at a much earlier time (weeks) than the acute injuries,” the exhibit says.
Upon learning of the boy’s death, Etoll supervisors decided to modify his investigative notes “to eliminate direct evidence of CYFD’s responsibility,” the piece says.
According to Etoll, supervisors Marvin Paul and Melissa Garcia asked where his notes regarding the Dunklee Cruz investigation were. She told them she hadn’t officially entered them into the CYFD information system yet, but had them on her work computer, the show said.
She alleges that she was told to provide supervisors with copies of the notes and then ordered to “make a number of specific deletions and edits before entering them into the formal system (CYFD),” says the room.
She was also asked to erase the part of the notes that revealed that her supervisor, Garcia, had decided to begin the process of placing James in CYFD custody, according to the exhibit. At this time, however, the boy could not be located and was not taken into CYFD custody.
“Mr. Paul and Ms. Garcia gave Ms. Etoll’s notes an extensive review, changing the way she phrased her observations and deleting notes they did not want recorded in the permanent file (CYFD) due to the death. of James and the planned investigation into their actions and inactions,” the exhibit states.
The original, unedited copy of his observations and conclusions was saved to the hard drive of his work computer, the petition states. At the time, Etoll had given her two weeks’ notice that she was resigning; she had made the decision to leave before James died. She turned the computer into CYFD on the last day of her employment, December 14, 2019, four days after James died.
She also returned her CYFD cell phone, which contained photos, text messages to and from her supervisors, another investigator, and Krista Cruz. “Based on information and beliefs, CYFD has caused a ‘factory reset’ of Ms Etoll’s phone, rather than retaining this physical evidence, even as the agency begins its own investigation into James’ death. “, says the exhibition.
The exhibit also alleges that CYFD reset Etoll’s work computer, “erasing the only copy of his investigative notes that were not redacted and reviewed by his supervisors.”
Depositions from Garcia, who no longer works for CYFD, and Paul have yet to be scheduled in the case. Neither Garcia nor Paul could be reached for comment Friday.
In response to questions from the Journal on Friday, CYFD spokesman Charlie Pabst-Moore issued a statement via email: “The death of this child, like the death of any child, is a tragedy. Zerrick Marquez has pleaded guilty to abuse resulting in the death of this innocent child. The Department does not comment on ongoing litigation, but notes that the Department is confident in its position and remains committed to improving New Mexico’s child welfare system and preventing such incidents from occurring.
Meanwhile, Cruz and Esparza await trial for reckless child abuse resulting in death.
A life filled with abuse
The lawsuit alleges that James Dunklee Cruz’s short life “was filled with abuse, both sexual and physical, by numerous men his mother left him with.”
A caller told CYFD that James was walking around an apartment complex in Rio Rancho in September 2019 “every day for hours and asking people for food.”
A month later, James was brought to a Duke City urgent care center with multiple injuries, the lawsuit says, “including an injured shoulder, bruising on the shaft of his penis and a black eye. “. He revealed to someone who called CYFD that his mother’s boyfriend at the time touched him inappropriately while he was in the shower.
The exhibit says that after receiving the allegations of abuse or neglect, CYFD imposed “safety plans” and other verbal directives on Cruz regarding his care. Each plan required him to fulfill certain obligations “specifically in exchange” for CYFD refusing to exercise its power to take him into custody.
For example, she was not due to reside with Marquez or his girlfriend, Esparza, in October 2019 and she had to place her son in daycare for his safety while she was at work.
The state legislature, in enacting the State Children’s Code, has emphasized keeping a family together whenever possible. But Crecca told the Journal on Friday that the CYFD is tasked by law with investigating alleged cases of child abuse and neglect and assessing the risk of future harm to the child.
“Something dramatic has to change,” Crecca told the Journal. “The administration must pay attention to this; these children must be a priority.