Advocates with bipartisan support are pushing legislation to fund a pilot project to provide rental housing and other social services as a way of keeping families together and reducing the number of children in foster care.
New Mexico Appleseed executive director Jennifer Ramo said she’s looking for about $1 million a year for the next three years to cover the cost of housing for 50 test families from Bernalillo, Doña Ana and Valencia counties.
The money would flow through the Children, Youth and Families Department, which would select the families and supply some of the support services. The state currently has about 2,000 children in foster care.
The “Keeping Families Together Act,” SB 108 and HB 255, is being carried in the Senate by Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Sandia Park, and Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, and in the House by Elizabeth Thomson, D-Albuquerque.
To be eligible, a child in the family would have to have an open and substantiated child abuse or neglect case with CYFD; one parent would have either a mental health issue or a substance abuse problem; and the family would have to be homeless or have inadequate housing.
Selected families would receive assistance in finding an appropriate home and vouchers for rent, security deposits and utilities. They would also get case management and long-term comprehensive support services for physical and mental health, substance abuse, employment, job training, parenting skills and tenant responsibility.
“There’s nothing not to like about this bill,” said Beffort. “It offers a meaningful intervention that can be a life saver for these struggling families. The biggest expense for families is housing, and with this kind of assistance people can start their lives over with their kids. This is an important piece to stabilizing a family.”
CYFD Secretary Yolanda Berumen-Deines said, “Keeping kids safe is CYFD’s primary mission, and a pilot program like this could put the agency in a position to be proactive in preventing child abuse.” Further discussion was needed on how results of the pilot program are measured, she added.
Ramo said it’s no coincidence “that in New Mexico, 72 percent of mothers and 47 percent of fathers of children in CYFD custody are homeless or have inadequate housing, or that 76 percent of mothers and 50 percent of fathers have inadequate financial resources or are unemployed.”
The Keeping Families Together plan represents a shift in how to deal with homelessness, Ramo said, a condition that “also increases the chance that a child will be placed in foster care,” which is a barrier to family reunification. She noted that the Child Welfare League of America estimates that 30 percent of children in foster care could be reunited with their families if safe, affordable housing were available.
Ramo said the program would be cheaper than the cost to the state for keeping a child in foster care.
Based on a similar program in New York, participating families can collectively expect to see a 72 percent reduction in child abuse and neglect, a 90 percent decrease in homelessness and a 28 percent increase in school attendance.
“It starts with housing,” Ramo said of this new model. “Just providing that changes everything.”