SANTA FE (KRQE) – They work with kids, the elderly, and the mentally ill so you’d expect New Mexico’s licensed social workers to be upstanding citizens. But News 13 uncovered evidence that shows the state has been giving licenses to people no one wants around the vulnerable.
When Lori Vallejos applied for a social worker license, she explained she received her “aggravated assault with a deadly weapon” conviction because she was moving a gun from a room during an argument, when the gun went off.
Vallejos was still on probation for that crime when she got her license to work with the state’s most vulnerable people.
“As a board – all the records and all the information provided to the board – the board felt she was worthy of being licensed,” said Alfredo Garcia, the head of the state board the licenses social workers at the Regulation and Licensing Department.
What the board didn’t have was the police report. It says she was angry with her boyfriend when he refused to buy her meth, and fired a gun at him, but missed.
“The current law does not allow the board to require background checks of all its applicants at this moment,” Garcia said.
Garcia is stuck with a state law that hasn’t been updated since 1987. As a result, the board has to rely on what an applicant chooses to reveal.
For example, in 2012, Nikka Peralta wrote a detailed explanation for her three DWI convictions on her license application. She wrote that her experiences make her someone who has “been there” and “come out stronger.”
What she didn’t tell the board was that just four months earlier, she had been arrested and charged with felony DWI, which later became she plead no contest to a third DWI.
“Our primary mission is to protect the general population,” Garcia said. “If there are cases that are falling through the cracks – then we need to reassess the law.”
Garcia says the board will petition the legislature to change the law to require background checks.
In the meantime, the head of the Regulation and Licensing Department, Superintendent Mike Unthank, is working to implement new technology that would notify the state if a licensee has a new arrest or conviction.
“We need to have systems in place where the board has more information directly at its disposal,” Unthank said.
The Social Work licensing board says they’ll be discussing the two social workers at their next meeting.
Neither woman agreed to interview for this story.
Peralta’s employer, Attachment Healing Center in Albuquerque, says they “stand by a very fine and dedicated employee.”
“As an organization dedicated to helping people move forward in their lives through healthy thoughts and deeds, Nikka demonstrates a success story that people can change their lives and be productive members of society,” said Terry Morris, director of operations at the Attachment Healing Center.
Morris would not answer whether the clinic was aware of her fourth DWI conviction last year, a felony.
Some social workers still go through background checks depending on where they want to work.
CYFD, for example, does a background check on anyone they want to hire, including social workers.