The Unspoken Truth About Mary Melero’s Death: State Officials Really Don’t Care About People Like Her.

Governance is about making choices.

In the matter of Mary Melero, New Mexico state government chose poorly.

Mary was a young woman with developmental disabilities who needed people to protect her.

But years of poor choices made by elected and appointed officials resulted in systemic failure to protect Mary from suffering horrific abuse and, ultimately, led to her death.

The Candle has copies of records it received through a public records request that confirm at least seven serious complaints had been made about abuse, neglect, and exploitation (ANE) of Mary Melero between 2016 and 2023 – including the one called in on February 28, 2023, reporting what the Governor eventually described during her March 20, 2023 press conference as a “horrific case of abuse.”

People with disabilities face a higher percentage of abuse and exploitation than the public at large.

That fact is clearly known by state officials, and has been through many administrations – Democratic and Republican.

Yet elected leaders from both political parties have in reality – through policy and funding decisions – turned a blind eye to reports exposing just how vulnerable members of the Developmentally Disabled community are.

According to a 2017 report of the New Mexico Division of Health Improvement, Incident Management Bureau, in response to a survey regarding abuse, neglect, and exploitation, 87% of the respondents reported verbal-emotional abuse, 51% reported physical abuse, 42% reported sexual abuse, 37% reported neglect, and 32% reported financial abuse.

The records The Candle referred to above regarding reports of abuse, neglect, and exploitation of Mary Melero, will be the subject of an upcoming report; they are not isolated instances of failures by a system to recognize and act in a timely manner to protect someone with Developmental Disabilities from abuse.

There are thousands of New Mexicans like Mary who count on others to provide a safe place for them to call home and enjoy the experiences of a life filled with hope.

They are members of the developmental disabilities community, and are entitled by law to have a safe, robust life and be helped by trained, experienced care givers.

According to a federal government description, “Developmental disabilities are a group of conditions due to an impairment in physical, learning, language, or behavior areas. These conditions begin during the developmental period, may impact day-to-day functioning, and usually last throughout a person’s lifetime.”

Some of these New Mexicans are fortunate enough to live in their family’s home and have parents or siblings who are their daily caregivers.

Others require the help of other professional caregivers – in a home that has more extensive health and behavioral health services built into a daily routine.

And there are others who can live in settings that provides less complicated assistance.

In any of these situations, there are community support services needed as well.

Under federal and state laws, parents with children who have developmental disabilities; brothers and sisters with siblings who have learning challenges, sight and speech impairments, and other behavior hurdles, should be able to count on the New Mexico Department of Health to provide the help needed to enable a neighbor like Mary to live safely and have a happy life.

But for decades, New Mexico’s politicians have neglected to adequately fund the “Developmental Disability Waiver (DD Waiver)” to provide services to all New Mexicans who need them.

The federal government matches the state contribution on an almost 3-1 basis, meaning that the state receives about $73 for every $27, it appropriates for DD Waiver.

As a result of under-funding the DD Waiver for so many years, DD Waiver eligible people in New Mexico faced long waiting lists, some lasting more than ten years for access to the help they really needed.

But that was all supposed to change according to promises made by gubernatorial candidate, Michelle Lujan Grisham in 2018.

New Mexico Governor Makes Promises to DD Waiver Community

When elections roll around, we hear how important the lives of people like Mary Melero are and how candidates running for office will fight for them.

Lujan Grisham said she had a plan to prioritize policies that would meet the needs of New Mexico’s most vulnerable populations, and one of the efforts would be to:

“Build system capacity to provide services to 4,500 people with developmental disabilities and their families, who currently have to wait more than a decade to receive services through the Developmental Disabilities (DD) waiver program, and seek a supports services waiver to help provide some temporary relief to families on the waiting list.”

It was a 2018 campaign promise.

Four years later, during her re-election campaign, Governor Lujan Grisham announced she was eliminating the waiting list.

On March 9, 2022, she issued a press release stating she, “signed the state budget for Fiscal Year 2023, making record investments in education, public safety, quality of life improvements and social support services, benefiting New Mexicans in every corner of the state. Highlights of the enacted budget include: $18 million to eliminate the developmental disabilities waiver waitlist and increase provider rates…”

And on April 28, 2022, the Governor issued another press release stating she had ended the 30-year-old Jackson Lawsuit in “which Plaintiffs alleged ongoing violations of the constitutional rights of adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities, as well as violations of health and safety. In 1990, the state was ordered to remedy those deficiencies through, among other actions, the development of individual treatment programs; abuse prevention and reduction; and improved training and staff supervision.”

“While it is remarkably gratifying to finally reach closure in such long-running litigation, the true winners in this case are the vulnerable New Mexicans and their families who are finally receiving the support they deserve … This issue is one that’s close to my heart. No family should be without the support they need, which is why my administration has focused on fixing the system, including delivering funding to eliminate the waitlist for the Developmental Disabilities Waiver and expanding services. This decision is an affirmation of the importance and success of that work.” – From the Governor’s press release.

Then, there are appointed officials that say things like, “People with developmental and intellectual disabilities are people, our neighbors, and our communities, family members – and they deserve to be treated with the utmost respect and care.

That quote is from Department of Health Secretary Patrick Allen speaking at the March 20, 2023 press conference the Governor held regarding the abuse of Mary Melero.

But despite all the claims of elected and appointed officials about eliminating the waiting list for services and to provide protection against abuse, neglect, and exploitation, clients of the Developmental Disabilities Waiver continue to be under-served.

And, as in the matter of Mary Melero, many are put in varying degrees of harm’s way.

If state officials, elected and appointed, had made better choices, she would likely still be alive.

The Candle will soon report on the choices by the Governor and Legislative leaders relative to funding, rate studies, capacity studies, provider agencies who have had to limit services due to insufficient rates, underpaid caregivers, and oversight for the Developmental Disabilities Waiver.

It will better inform the public about the promises and claims of elected and appointed officials versus the choices they actually made.

Tomorrow morning, members of the LEGISLATIVE HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES COMMITTEE (LHHS) (click here for a link to committee agenda) will hold their first meeting about the status of services for Developmentally Disabled Waiver Clients – Seven months after the Governor acknowledged the horrific abuse of DD Waiver Client Mary Melero.

Will they finally hold Department of Health and Human Service Department officials accountable?

Upcoming Reporting from The Candle:

Reports of Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation – The Indifference of State Officials.

By Running a Two-tiered System for Compensating Developmental Disability Direct Healthcare Workers Are State Agencies Inviting Another Class Action Lawsuit?

The Governor Eliminated the DD Waiver Waiting List for Eligible Clients With No Real Plan, and Shortchanged DDSD Budgets, Forcing Providers to Place a Moratorium on Taking on New Clients for Many Services.

Failure of DOH and HSD to Respect the Role of Stakeholder Input

New DDSD Director Reveals “March and April, Chaos at DDSD.” Will He Chart a New Course, or Abandon the Crew and Passengers?

Editor’s Note:

  • In the early spring of 2023, The Candle began researching and conducting interviews with stakeholders of services provided by the State of New Mexico Developmental Disabilities Support Division.
  • On numerous occasions The Candle emailed and called officials in the Department of Health, the Developmental Disabilities Support Division (DDSD), the Human Services Department, the Office of the Governor, staff to the Legislative Finance Committee and other legislative staff, and the Office of Attorney General, seeking answers to numerous questions regarding services the state is required to provide Developmentally Disabled Waiver (DD Waiver) clients.
  • Since March 12, 2023, when The Candle heard rumors of the horrific abuse suffered by a DD Waiver client, the Department of Health, DDSD, Human Services Department and the Office of the Governor have refused to answer calls and questions we emailed them.
  • The Attorney General’s Office and legislative personnel have provided responses to our inquiries as we prepared the reporting released today and over the next several days regarding DD Waiver matters.
  • In response to the silence of agencies controlled by the Governor, The Candle submitted numerous Inspection of Public Records Act requests; the Governor and the agencies she has control over, have withheld a significant number of documents and continue to be slow to release many other documents … and in the case of several others, The Candle is anticipating filing litigation for the release of records the administration is refusing to release relative to its handling of matters affecting DD Waiver clients.