SANTA FE – The head of the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department told members of a Senate committee Tuesday that the agency is exploring ways to hire experienced caseworkers and improve employee training.
But CYFD Secretary Yolanda Berumen-Deines, in response to tough questions from lawmakers about the death of a 9-year-old Albuquerque boy, said she could not guarantee that similar tragedies would not occur in the future.
“As long as we’re dealing with human behavior … there’s always the possibility that’s going to happen again,” Berumen-Deines told members of the Senate Finance Committee.
CYFD has come under scrutiny in recent weeks, since the Dec. 27 death of Omaree Varela, who died after allegedly being kicked by his mother. He had reportedly disclosed physical abuse to school authorities about a year before his death.
The agency has struggled with staff shortages and high vacancy rates in recent years. It returned nearly $6.6 million in unspent funds to the state general fund during the 2013 budget year, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.
During Tuesday’s budget hearing, Berumen-Deines cited retirement, burnout and the lure of private-sector jobs as reasons for CYFD’s high turnover rate.
Gov. Susana Martinez has proposed giving CYFD caseworkers a salary increase and hiring an additional 10 investigators in the agency’s Protective Services Division as part of her budget proposal for the coming fiscal year.
“Unless we address the compensation side, we’re not going to see the retention we want for those positions,” State Personnel Director Gene Moser, a Martinez appointee, said during Tuesday’s hearing.
However, Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, said the staffing problems have been brought up – but not fixed – in previous years, adding, “I’m not sure what we’ve done to improve that.”
Meanwhile, another Democratic lawmaker, Sen. Michael Padilla of Albuquerque, said Tuesday that he plans to introduce legislation during the ongoing 30-day legislative session that would try to bolster CYFD’s staffing.
Specifically, the legislation would allow for the state to help pay graduate school expenses for social work students, in exchange for their agreeing to work for CYFD’s Protective Services Division for at least 12 months.
As for CYFD, Berumen-Deines said Tuesday that her agency is investigating the possibility of hiring retired police officers as investigative caseworkers.
She told legislators that she could not speak about the details of the Omaree Varela case, but that the agency is also working to improve its training regimen for investigators.
“We’re doing everything we can to tighten up our systems,” Berumen-Deines said.