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United Way effort targets families in need

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

District Attorney Raúl Torrez cited the recent case of a man who strangled his wife with their four young children in the home to illustrate the need for a concerted community effort to improve family stability.

District Attorney Raúl Torrez

District Attorney Raúl Torrez

Carlos Alfredo Perez, 31, was sentenced Nov. 11 to 17 years in prison after a Bernalillo County jury convicted him of second-degree murder in his wife’s 2016 killing. The tragedy has left the couple’s four children, all under the age of 10, without parents.

“Their mother is dead, their father is in prison,” Torrez said. “Who is going to step in and help those kids?”

Torrez is a co-chair of a new United Way of Central New Mexico initiative intended to develop programs that target families devastated by problems such as addiction, violence and the incarceration of a parent.

United Way recently sent a letter to leaders of more than 90 programs that currently receive United Way funding outlining “Mission: Families” – a strategy to coordinate and improve efforts, and steer more United Way funding to programs that focus on family stability and youth development.

The nonprofit plans over the next three years to target its unrestricted – or Community Fund – donations toward “projects to increase secure and stable homes for children, improve children’s safety and well being, and support working families,” the letter said. Unrestricted funding consists of those donations that donors do not specify should go to a specific agency or charity.

Torrez said it’s important for the public to realize that it’s crucial to invest in prevention in order to lower crime and incarcerations – and that public safety starts with children as young as 5. Mission: Family will identify programs that help break the cycle of family dysfunction that is driving a growing number of children into the criminal justice system, he said.

“One of the more discouraging aspects of the criminal justice system for prosecutors (is) we always show up after tragedies have unfolded,” he said. “In terms of bringing about real public safety, I need to think about how and where we can invest time, energy and effort into prevention, as well as punishment.”

He said that ideally there will be data that show if a family has a number of emergency call outs – such as violence, neglect, abuse or drug overdose – that would trigger early intervention and the offering of coordinated services.

Mission: Families is modeled after United Way’s 5-year-old initiative Mission: Graduate, which set a goal of having New Mexicans receive an additional 60,000 certificates or college degrees by 2020, above what was already anticipated.

The challenges of educating children pointed to more profound problems that New Mexico teachers face teaching children from families in crisis, said Helen Wertheim, the other co-chair of Mission: Families.

“We heard from some key leaders in education that they were spending half their time dealing with family stability issues with the kids, rather than teaching,” she said.

The goal of Mission: Families is to “bring people together to create efficiencies, accountability, transparency and shared goal setting” to improve the chances that kids will succeed in school and life, Wortheim said.

Kyle Beasley

Kyle Beasley, a senior vice president at Bank of Albuquerque, said United Way typically receives up to $4 million a year in unrestricted funding, which the nonprofit invests in more than 90 organizations, each receiving an average grant of about $35,000.

Over the next three years, United Way plans to identify and invest in programs that focus on family stability in an effort to “move the needle” on fundamental problems facing children, said Beasley, a member of the Mission: Families leadership team.

“You want to see impact with your donor dollars,” he said.

United Way board Chairman Kirby Jefferson said another goal is to attract funding from national groups, which he said Mission: Graduate has been able to do. That allows the local contributions to leverage into more funding, giving United Way efforts an even greater impact on the community.

Early response shows that donors are enthusiastic about the strategy, Beasley said.

Data collection and analysis will be a key part of assessing the impact of programs in improving child safety and well-being, Torrez said.

“We’re just seeing a lot more of these serious younger offenders at younger and younger levels,” he said.

Torrez said a key indicator of success would be a reduction in the number of youthful offenders entering the criminal justice system.

“If we can do that,” he said, “I think what you are going to see is a pretty significant decline in the types of crime you are seeing.”

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