SANTA FE, N.M. — Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
Already strained, the child welfare system in Bernalillo County has been deluged with new cases of child abuse and neglect since the violent death of a 9-year-old boy shocked the community in late December.
More children are being removed from their homes, at least temporarily, new statistics show. And there’s been a jump in the calls that require an emergency response from state Children, Youth and Families Department caseworkers.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said one CYFD staff member. “This is going through the roof.”
From Jan. 1 to Feb. 28 of this year:
- The state Children, Youth and Families Department filed 52 legal cases seeking to take alleged abused or neglected children into state custody, according to Children’s Court data. That’s a 93 percent increase over the same two-month period in 2013.
“We’re swamped,” chief Children’s Court Judge John J. Romero Jr. said last week.
- Allegations of abuse and neglect referred for investigation are up more than 350 over the previous year at this time – 1,372 in January and February compared to 1,017 in the first two months of 2013.
- Law enforcement agencies, primarily the Albuquerque Police Department, are filing a greater number of 48-hour holds to remove children from their homes because of concerns about their safety.
The hold gives a CYFD caseworker time to investigate whether the abused or neglected child would be safe to remain at home, possibly with in-home services, or whether there’s enough evidence to warrant removal to state custody.
CYFD officials said the number of 48-hour holds jumped to 86 the first two months of this year, compared to 36 in the same period in 2013.
- The number of investigations deemed emergencies by CYFD’s statewide intake office more than doubled.
For the first two months of this year, 235 cases were given emergency status, compared to 103 for the same period in 2013.
If the intake workers believe a child is in immediate danger and the referral is deemed an emergency, a social worker or police officer is on the scene within three hours.
A less immediate “priority one” call requires a face-to-face visit with the family within 24 hours. Those were up 42 percent over the prior year at this time.
Referrals given “priority two” status, which require a visit within five days, increased 20 percent.
CYFD officials last week couldn’t provide specifics when asked if the state’s foster home system had enough capacity to handle the sharp increase in children being removed from their homes.
CYFD officials and Albuquerque police have been criticized for failing to remove 9-year-old Omaree Varela from his home in the months before he was allegedly kicked to death by his mother on Dec. 27.
APD and/or CYFD caseworkers responded to at least three prior incidents to check out allegations of abuse, including a verbal tirade against the boy by his stepfather.
None of those investigations led to CYFD officials or police removing the boy for his safety.
CYFD officials defended their actions in the case and placed the blame on Omaree’s mother, who has been indicted on charges of child abuse resulting in death.
Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry appointed a task force to look into the issue, while APD Internal Affairs looked into the actions of two officers who responded to one call at the home and never filed a report.
Krisztina Ford, president and CEO of All Faiths of Albuquerque, said her nonprofit agency has the largest forensic interview program in the state for abused children. The increase in cases has been apparent, she said, but it’s unclear what has triggered the spike.
“It could be that more children are telling their stories,” she said. “It also could be that the adults are listening more carefully. So it’s kind of hard to gauge whether there is really a greater number of abuse cases or there’s just more awareness in general, largely because of the Omaree case that sort of rattled this community so much.”
Her agency, which also provides behavioral health services for children and their families, works closely with CYFD and law enforcement agencies that investigate abuse.
“Certainly the Omaree case brought the attention of the whole community,” Ford said. “CYFD is definitely more alert, the police are definitely more alert and I think that’s what we see on our end when we see an increase in the number of interviews we conduct.” Such interviews are often conducted before authorities file criminal child abuse charges.
But the spike in the number of cases isn’t helping overburdened CYFD caseworkers, children’s court attorneys and other child protective services staff in Bernalillo County.
“It’s all people can talk about,” said one employee. “They’re asking ‘what are we going to do? This is a sinking ship … this workload is not possible.’ ”
The office recently reported a 25 percent vacancy rate in caseworkers who investigate abuse and neglect.
CYFD spokesman Henry Varela said his agency always needs more staff, but that the pace and thoroughness of abuse and neglect investigations won’t be compromised.
Caseworkers assigned to court and other areas of the agency’s Bernalillo County office are being reassigned to work investigations and the agency hopes to hire new caseworkers, he said.
“The bottom line (is) we are always going to do whatever’s necessary to ensure these children are safe,” Varela said. “The last thing we want to do is scare people into thinking ‘they (CYFD) don’t have anybody to investigate.’ ”
He said CYFD had instituted no policy or practice changes that might explain the increase in legal cases seeking a judge’s approval to take children into state custody.
Asked about reports of a shortage of foster care homes in the county, Varela couldn’t immediately say how many children have had to be placed in homes outside the county or in foster homes already operating at their licensed capacity.
Varela asked the Journal to file a written request for the information.
Bernalillo County has about 182 foster homes.
Under CYFD policy, abused and neglected children can sometimes be placed with relatives for the short term while a more permanent solution is found or until the relative completes the agency’s foster parent program, he said.
Ford, of All Faiths, said, with the current rise in cases, there’s a need for a broader discussion about the factors that lead to abuse and neglect in families.
“We don’t know at this point whether this is going to be an upward trend or this is just a surge because of the Omaree case,” she said. “There’s no one agency that can resolve that … it has to be community collaboration and a greater dialogue than just any one agency changing their internal policies.”