Home State/Regional News OPINION: CYFD Gov’s priority, and still they died

OPINION: CYFD Gov’s priority, and still they died

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Sherry Robinson/New Mexico News Service

For much of its existence, the state Children, Youth and Families Department has needed reform.

After each child died from abuse in hellish situations known to CYFD and law enforcement, we learned and relearned that pay and staffing were low, and turnover and burnout were high.

Meanwhile, New Mexico plummeted in rankings of child well-being.

And still they died: Breandra, Leland, Omaree, Izabellah.

In 2011 New Mexico was second in the rate of children being re-victimized within six months. That year, Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, ordered a hiring freeze that increased workloads for CYFD investigators.

After Omaree’s death in 2013, we heard about CYFD’s chronic under-staffing, overworked and underpaid social workers, constant turnover, mismanagement from top to bottom, and poor communications with police. Employees described a cliquish atmosphere with a pecking order that dictated promotions and even office furniture.

Investigators in some counties had 20 to 30 cases per month while the national standard was 12, but managers dismissed employee concerns.

Legislators in 2014 introduced “Omaree’s law,” which defined the specific injuries – burns, bruises, bite marks, and broken bones – that would require CYFD to take custody. Then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, proposed using the courts to force families to use the department’s services. The bills failed, but Martinez did raise pay for caseworkers.

A 2014 Albuquerque Journal investigation found that a quarter of the 79 children who’d died since 2008 had been on CYFD’s radar (Omaree’s case was 18 months old), and New Mexico was still high in repeated re-victimizations. That year, CYFD’s turnover rate was 20%, its backlog of unfinished investigations was nearly 4,000.

More dangerous, child advocates complained, was CYFD’s push to return kids to their parents.

Case workers simply have no tools to deal with a mom on meth and her bonehead boyfriend or her so-called friends.

Martinez announced a slate of reforms, and in December 2014 she moved Secretary Monique Jacobson from the Tourism Department to CYFD.

Jacobson, a standout in tourism who knew nothing about children in crisis, launched a cheery, $2.7 million public relations campaign to make New Mexico “the best place to be a kid.” CYFD then had funding for home visits to just 4,130 children.

And still they died: Antonio, Jeremiah, Victoria. A 2018 lawsuit against CYFD spotlighted the state’s abysmal foster care system. That year New Mexico had the highest rate of childhood trauma exposure in the country, and turnover of protective service workers topped 26%.

In 2019, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham took office, and CYFD was a priority, she said.

She appointed Bay Area child advocate Brian Blalock to turn around the troubled agency, but he proved to be all wrong for CYFD. After he and his deputy secretary left last year, employees described a culture of retaliation and intimidation. Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Vigil took over and ordered an outside review of the agency.

And still they died: James, Diana and an unnamed infant.

New Mexico had 23 child abuse deaths in fiscal 2020, compared with 11 in 2019, said the Legislative Finance Committee, and ranked second nationally in revictimization. Our case workers investigate an average of 124 cases a year; the national average is 67, KOAT reported in March. Turnover had reached 48%.

Recently, yet another lawsuit revealed that when 4-year-old James was beaten to death, he was well known to CYFD, and the investigator argued to remove him. She said her superiors initially disagreed. After he died they ordered her to fudge her records.

Now the outside investigator’s report is done, but CYFD has refused to release it.

It must be pretty alarming, but after decades of bad policy, bad management and underfunding, what else can we expect?

Sherry Robinson is a New Mexico News Services columnist. She can be reached at robinson@nmia.com.

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