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Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
When Monique Jacobson was named to head the state Children, Youth and Families Department in December 2014, one of the first things she did was spend an afternoon with young people who had aged out of the state’s foster care system.
“A theme that continued to come up were situations where they weren’t OK with what was happening to them while they were in foster care, and they didn’t feel like they had a voice or a way to make that known,” Jacobson said.
At any time they could have reported those situations to their case workers, but as kids they were reluctant to cause problems for their foster families, and they worried they wouldn’t be believed, so they remained silent, she said.
“At the time I joked that what I needed was something like the Bat Phone, where kids would be able to call directly to Santa Fe and make their concerns known,” Jacobson said. “There are 34 CYFD offices around the state, all with workers, supervisors, county office managers and regional managers. So there’s a lot of layers between a child and Santa Fe. What I wanted to do was get rid of as many layers as possible when it comes to foster children feeling they were not treated properly.”
Jacobson didn’t get her Bat Phone, but the idea evolved into a formal grievance process that is expected to be in place before the end of October and after an ombudsman position is filled.
Three years in the making, the process was formulated by aged-out kids from foster care working with CYFD staff and Jacobson. About 2,600 children are in foster care in New Mexico at any given time, and about 1,200 to 1,300 active foster parents.
Alyssa Otero, 21, was among those former foster kids who helped create the process. She was in foster care from the time she was born until age 10, when she was adopted. She was later removed from the adopted family’s care at age 16 and brought back into the foster system until she aged out at age 18.
Otero said kids in foster care are reluctant to make waves.
“We’re told by the families we’re taken away from that ‘you’re a liar and no one is going to listen to you,’ ” she said. “They would punish us for speaking up about anything that was hurting us or things they did to hurt us. So we didn’t want to speak up because there were consequences for every action.”
That reluctance to speak extended to institutions that housed children.
“I was in a treatment facility, because I was being forced to take medication that I didn’t want,” Otero said. “In order for me to leave and go into normal foster care and actually go to school, I had to take it. I felt the medications were not helping and made me sleepy.”
One of Otero’s friends, who was also in foster care, needed to go to a dentist for a painful condition, “But she got into trouble with her foster family. They punished her by refusing to take her for dental care and preventing her from contacting her caseworker,” she said.
Speaking of her friend’s case, Otero said, “I would definitely have used the foster child grievance process if it had been in place at the time.”
Another time she would have used it, she said, was when CYFD placed her with a family she knew, but which wasn’t certified to be foster parents.
“The father was very abusive, and I had to run away from there,” Otero said.
She did later contact her caseworker, but because she’d been reported as a runaway, the CYFD investigation did not proceed reasonably quickly, “at least not to the extent where anything happened to him,” Otero said.
Under the new process, any child in CYFD protective custody can file a grievance or have one filed on their behalf when they believe their rights have been violated. Initially they remain anonymous until a panel is convened, at which time the subject of the complaint is notified of the grievance against them and given the opportunity to respond.
Grievances can be filed against foster parents, CYFD Protective Services Division workers, foster siblings, foster youth peers, guardians ad litem, youth attorneys, CYFD contractors, shelter staff and staff at residential facilities.
A child can file a grievance with the ombudsman, either in writing, on the phone, in an email or in person. The ombudsman then creates a grievance file and assembles a three-person panel to hear the complaint.
The panel consists of a caseworker supervisor who has been with CYFD for a minimum of one year, a foster parent and a current or former foster youth. The parent and former foster youth must be from a different county from where the case originated and where the child who made the complaint is currently placed.
Each individual who sits on a panel will have undergone training on how to process a grievance, and the policies and procedures that must be followed to resolve them.
The panel then informs the ombudsman of its decision and recommendations for remediation when appropriate. If the panel decides that the rights of the child were not violated, that child has 90 business days to dispute the decision.
In addition to the grievance process, kids in foster care will have a “Foster Care Child and Youth Bill of Rights,” a 14-point checklist that outlines their right to privacy; their right to an explanation about why they are in foster care; their right to be free from physical, sexual or emotional abuse; their right to contact CYFD, an attorney or other professional involved in their case; their right to access medical, dental, vision and behavioral health services, as well as the right to refuse such services after age 14 unless they are ordered by a court.
“If an allegation involves abuse or neglect, it still goes through the abuse and neglect investigation process and it would be cross-reported to law enforcement,” Jacobson said. “So this is not to replace that; rather it’s an addition and another avenue for kids to be heard.”