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DCS system flaw left judges without necessary information in parental rights cases

By Greg Hahne, Kirsten Dorman
Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Published: Monday, August 21, 2023 - 2:38pm
Updated: Wednesday, August 23, 2023 - 11:28am

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Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services
Department of Child Safety Director David Lujan at ceremonies on Aug. 15, 2023, to open a new shelter for children removed by the agency from their homes.

A flaw has been found in a system used by the Department of Child Safety that has let judges make decisions on removing children from homes without having all necessary information.

Attorney General Kris Mayes is set to review more than 650 closed cases to see if any of the documents not disclosed would have changed the outcome.

“They implemented this system back in February of 2021 and allowed these non-disclosures to go on for two years,” Mayes said. “And that’s just unacceptable.”

The discovery has raised the question of whether any of the impacted court decisions about terminating parental rights, guardianships or adoptions will be overturned.

"I think it would depend on the circumstances in the case," said David Lujan, the agency's new director. But he told Capitol Media Services Monday that even if DCS did not directly provide the documents to the courts or the parties — like the parents involved — they may have obtained them through other means, like subpoenas to the private providers who prepared them for DCS in the first place.

Those closed cases may only be part of the problem.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Wright is sending letters to the presiding judges in all 15 counties. 

She is requesting they suspend action on all pending cases for the next two weeks while her agency and DCS determine what records may be missing.

She said that statewide, at least 3,800 juvenile dependency cases could be affected. “We are going to look at this on a case-by-case basis,” Wright said. “And then the courts will have to decide what happens with regards to those cases.”

Wright says reversing decisions in those closed cases, or affected cases with pending appeals, isn’t a given.  

The sentiment was echoed by Lujan, who said they’re making changes to the whole system.  He expressed confidence in having a better one in place within a few months.

Hear Howard Fischer discuss the issue with host Mark Brodie on The Show