New Mexico lawmakers focus budget on preventing child abuse

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Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, reviews exhibits Wednesday during a Legislative Finance Committee meeting in Chama. As the meeting continued Thursday, lawmakers heard presentations on child abuse and efforts to help families. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — Far fewer children in New Mexico’s child welfare system receive services aimed at preventing abuse from their families than the national average — a reflection of opportunity, according to legislative analysts, to focus more on preventing abuse.

About five in every 1,000 children in the state system are part of families linked to preventive services, well below the national rate of 43 children, according to a report presented Thursday to the Legislative Finance Committee.

The prevention statistics have sparked a debate among lawmakers about where to assign blame and how best to prevent abuse before it happens when crafting next year’s budget for the Department of Health. Childhood, Youth and Families.

The state has been rocked by a series of shocking abuse cases in recent years – including a trial in the death of 4-year-old boy James Dunklee Cruz, who had been fired 10 times for child abuse or child neglect before he was found unresponsive in late 2019, beaten to death by a man the CYFD warned the mother not to live with.

State Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said preventing some abuses is simply beyond the agency’s control. Either the families are unwilling to accept the services, she said, or the services are not available at all.

But what complicates matters, Kernan said, is the “arm wrestling” between the department’s twin goals – to avoid the trauma of removing a child from the home but also to protect their life.

“We have children who need to be removed from these families,” Kernan said. “The safety of these children, I don’t believe, comes first.”

New Mexico has some of the highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse in the nation, a factor in child abuse rates, analysts said.

Barbara Vigil, Secretary of State for Children, Youth and Families, defended the work of social workers but said they needed more support, including higher pay and a larger staff.

“They choose to work in a crisis situation and give themselves body and soul to help families,” she said.

Vigil described a host of measures intended to bolster prevention efforts — including a recruiting campaign at universities to help fill vacancies, targeted training for CYFD employees already on staff, and coordination with other organizations. other state agencies to connect more families to services.

“We’re not afraid of being held accountable,” Vigil said.

The CYFD hearing comes as members of the Legislative Finance Committee prepare to draft recommendations for next year’s state budget. New Mexico is brimming with new revenue from the oil boom, consumer spending and rising wages.

Representative Patricia Lundstrom, Democrat of Gallup and President of the LFC, urged the department to quickly take advantage of funding already authorized by lawmakers to help expand CYFD’s membership. She repeatedly pressed Vigil for details on the number of employees trained, steps to hire new workers and other progress.

“It doesn’t help us to think we’re doing something only to find out later, god, we’re still in planning mode,” Lundstrom said.

The report from LFC staff analysts made it clear that the Department of Children, Youth and Families has made progress in directing money towards prevention, but there is still a lot of room for improvement. improvement.

Prevention spending skyrocketed from just $900,000 in 2017 to $10.3 million in the fiscal year that ended this summer, according to the analysts’ report. But this is only a small slice of money compared to the agency’s overall expenses.

Prevention efforts include “differential response,” or a strategy of connecting families with services if the complaint against them does not rise to the level of requiring foster care or investigation. The goal is to help the family – with mental health services, food, housing or other supports – before more serious abuse occurs.

Staff turnover, vacancies and high workloads are among the factors that could hamper the state’s prevention efforts, analysts told lawmakers.

New Mexico, analysts said, is also one of 10 states that has yet to submit a plan to the federal government under the Family First Prevention Services Act, which can provide funding to help focus on early intervention.

Vigil said she expects the plan to be submitted next month.

Sen. George Muñoz, Democrat of Gallup and deputy chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, suggested the department table the plan quickly. Given the scale of the challenges, he said, he doesn’t want New Mexico to be among the last states to submit.

“I don’t want to hear that,” he warned.

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