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Study explores how to prevent child abuse

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SANTA FE – Expanding in-home prevention programs could help New Mexico stem steady increases in child mistreatment and re-victimization rates, according to a legislative report released Friday.

In addition, the Legislative Finance Committee report found that expanding home-visiting programs – and possibly implementing new ones – could be a more cost-effective way of reducing abuse rates than taking children out of abusive homes.

A 10 percent decrease in child mistreatment cases and foster care placements would save the state millions of dollars, the report found. It defined mistreatment as either child abuse or neglect.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, told the Journal after a hearing Friday that such cost savings are attractive to lawmakers, provided the programs are effective.

“We’re trying to get more efficiency with the dollars – trying to find a better way to do things,” Smith said.

Gov. Susana Martinez and other state leaders have already proposed some systemic changes in the aftermath of the death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela of Albuquerque, who died in December after an alleged beating and kicking by his mother.

Changes unveiled recently by Martinez include more information sharing between law enforcement and the state Children, Youth and Families Department, more scrutiny of families with multiple CYFD investigations and better recruitment and retention of caseworkers.

CYFD, the state agency that oversees key early childhood programs, receives more than 30,000 child abuse or neglect reports per year, according to the LFC report. About 55 percent of those reported cases end up being investigated after an initial screening, the report says.

Other key findings in the report included:

  • Roughly 36 percent of New Mexico children who are abused will be abused or victimized again before they are 18 years old.
  • Only about 5 out of every 1,000 children in the state receive preventive services, compared with the national average of roughly 43 out of every 1,000.
  • The average number of children in foster care increased from 1,696 in the 2011 fiscal year to 1,779 in the 2013 fiscal year.

The LFC review also found it costs the state more than $21,000 annually for each abuse case that results in a child being placed in foster care. In contrast, the report found that the cost for in-home intervention programs is roughly $3,700 per year.

CYFD Secretary Yolanda Deines told lawmakers Friday that she does not dispute most of the report’s conclusions.

However, Deines, whose agency has come under fire since the death of Omaree Varela, pointed out that lawmakers did not approve proposed legislation during this year’s 30-day session that would have mandated that parents comply with counseling or treatment programs in cases where evidence exists of child abuse or neglect.

The lack of such a law hamstrings the efforts of CYFD caseworkers, she said.

“When their hands are tied, pretty soon it begins to feel like an uphill climb,” Deines said.

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