Gov. Susana Martinez on Wednesday revealed a host of reforms designed to improve the way child abuse cases are investigated and the way the Children, Youth and Families Department works with families where abuse or neglect allegations have been made.
The governor acknowledged that the reforms are being initiated as a result of an intensive review conducted into the death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela, who died in December after allegedly being beaten and kicked by his mother. CYFD only recently confirmed that there were nine referrals about the child and his family to its agency, with two being substantiated. Albuquerque Police Department officers simultaneously responded to some of those calls.
A state legislator who has long been critical of CYFD said Martinez’s announced reforms are a good start, but there is still a number of areas that need work.
Ten CYFD caseworkers and the governor reviewed the case involving Omaree. Asked if in her review she found any instances where CYFD may have “dropped the ball” in its handling of the case, the governor said she did not. Nevertheless, the review did result in the identification of three areas where immediate improvement was called for: better communication, follow-through and information sharing between law enforcement and CYFD; taking a more proactive approach in dealing with families with multiple CYFD investigations; and the recruitment and retention of CYFD caseworkers.
“Police officers and case workers tend to investigate the same cases involving the same families, but there has been far too little communication and information sharing,” the governor said. Consequently, Martinez is embracing a child welfare model that puts case workers, police officers, sexual assault nurse examiners and other specialists under the same roof in what she called child advocacy centers, where they can work and investigate the same cases together.
Police responded to at least one 911 call regarding possible child abuse of Omaree without calling CYFD. A police dispatcher listened to a 20-minute tirade by Omaree’s mother and stepfather, who obviously did not know the call had been made as they continued belittling and threatening the boy. Officers spent 15 to 20 minutes at the home and did not call CYFD. Neither police nor CYFD has said whether the officers knew about the earlier referrals.
Martinez said she will direct state agencies to identify areas in New Mexico where the child advocacy centers can be established. She noted that CYFD has located office space in Valencia County, which has one of the highest rates of child abuse.
Albuquerque already has the Family Advocacy Center, “and I’m directing CYFD to permanently deploy a team of investigators to work there alongside police officers” and other specialists working on child abuse cases.
Martinez also said she will:
• Require CYFD case workers to “seek police reports and other law enforcement materials related to their cases before rendering an investigative decision.”
State Police and other law enforcement agencies under Martinez’s direction will be required to cooperate with CYFD and provide materials on child abuse cases in a timely fashion.
• Require that all officers dispatched to a child abuse incident call CYFD’s statewide Central Intake Center to determine the number and nature of prior CYFD interactions with the child and family.
A key point raised by social workers during the review concerned how to decide cases involving families who have had multiple CYFD contacts, Martinez said. Under the new reforms, any family that has had two CYFD investigations, whether or not abuse or neglect was substantiated, will now be the subject of a CYFD supervisory level review with each subsequent CYFD referral.
• CYFD is also instituting a pilot program in Bernalillo County to employ family support workers, a new category of CYFD social worker, to regularly interact with those families that have been the subject of three or more CYFD child welfare investigations in the last 10 years.
Addressing issues about CYFD staffing shortages, the governor said CYFD will immediately hire a specialized recruiter to identify new caseworker prospects, and establish a priority hiring team to get those new hires into the field as soon as possible. Those applicants will be hired at higher pay to work in rural communities, where retention is especially difficult.
CYFD gets about 32,000 to 34,000 calls a year, of which 17,000 to 18,000 are screened for investigation. CYFD has about 550 caseworkers of all categories, throughout the state, according to CYFD spokesman Henry Varela, no relation to Omaree Varela.
The average caseload for investigative caseworkers is from 12 to 15 at any given time; permanency caseworkers, who work to place children in foster homes or adoption, handle an average of 22 cases at any given time. Both caseloads are slightly higher than the national average, Varela said. He said CYFD has about a 15 percent vacancy rate in caseworker positions.
CYFD has been instructed to raise the minimum salary by 3 percent for all new caseworkers; existing caseworkers who are getting a 4 percent raise for the current fiscal year will get another 3 percent for fiscal year 2015.
In addition, the CYFD Academy of Professional Development budget will be increased by $100,000, a boost of more than 10 percent, for professional training and development.
Henry Varela said CYFD has the funding in its budget to pay for the reforms and that many of the changes are procedural and won’t cost money.
After learning of Martinez’s reforms, Sen. Michael Padilla of Albuquerque, who spent time in foster homes as a youth, said he was “encouraged by the governor’s sudden interest in resolving the issues at CYFD, but so much was left out.”
Padilla introduced legislation in the last session, which passed, forcing CYFD to collect data that can later be used to craft additional legislation with the goal of improving service delivery at the agency.
The governor’s reforms, he said, failed to address inconsistencies in CYFD policies and procedures that exist from county to county, and to create a division within CYFD to deal with the courts regarding all legal matters involving children and families.
He said the agency also needs to design, develop and implement a new case management system; increase the number of foster homes; improve foster home support services; better prepare families interested in adoption, particularly when adopting wards of the state and abandoned children; and provide more comprehensive behavioral health options for children and families.