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New law will help to protect NM’s kids

A special legislative committee has begun working with Children, Youth and Families Department officials, the Casey Family Programs – a nationally-recognized child welfare consulting organization – and the Behavioral Health Division of the Medicaid program to make sure New Mexico is positioned to take full advantage of a new federal law known as the Family First Prevention Services Act.

This measure is a landmark in federal/state child-welfare policy and has wonderful potential for helping our struggling CYFD actually get ahead of the child neglect and abuse epidemic and start preventing such problems rather than continually, and mostly unsuccessfully, playing catch-up.

From the discussions during the committee’s working sessions, I have become convinced of several things:

1: Our child-welfare problems are solvable, but only with a sustained commitment of energy and money, one that must bridge multiple future administrations and must be jealously insulated from ever serving as a political football.

2: New Mexico’s situation has deteriorated badly, not because of a lack of dedicated public servants at CYFD, in law enforcement or the courts but because we are experiencing a fundamental breakdown in families – with children who therefore don’t get securely and lovingly parented the victims.

3: The family decay we are experiencing is caused by wide-spread drug and alcohol abuse; poverty and its partners crime, inadequate housing and lack of economic opportunity; and a shift in the economy away from manual labor-intensive jobs that has marooned many in the workforce in low-wage purgatory.

4: We can’t respond successfully to these broad societal issues using the approaches to protective services that have been in place for decades. A thorough re-thinking of how we expect child welfare to serve our state is required – a change that will be helped by new Families First legislation and financing.

The Families First initiative combines a shift in focus for children’s protective services from responding effectively to preventing with a strong emphasis on using approaches that have been demonstrated effective through careful evaluations. And it backs up that emphasis by increasing funding for services which meet those “evidence-based” criteria.

It supports family members as first options for placing children when all else fails and they have to be removed, but it requires us to be more active in intervening with families, offering in-home services designed to keep the child with the parents, such as home visiting, child care, homemaker and home-builder mentoring. It will require a major commitment to providing access to better housing for these families, both through rental vouchers and through supportive housing, with many additional units needing to be built.

The new law provides for expanded training for the social workers, their supervisors and the foster families who work directly with the children and families. It will finance 50 percent of any administrative costs involved, and most significantly, it is structured as an entitlement, not a grant of a specific dollar amount. In other words, as our utilization grows, as more families are served and children helped, the federal money involved will grow.

Families First is no panacea. It will require much ingenuity on the part of the state agencies involved and a wholehearted commitment from the Legislature and the executive branch. But in its clear focus on reducing the number of children in our state who have to be removed from their parents’ custody by preventing the neglect or abuse that might have gone on without help, it is a bright ray of hope.

I am encouraged by the level of excitement that CYFD and Human Services have brought to the task of planning for implementing the new program by next October. That such a promising step popped up without a lot of fanfare, generated out of the budget struggles in Washington, is close to miraculous. Let’s not question our good fortune; let’s get down to work.