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Editorial: CYFD, and thus NM’s kids, in much better shape

The state’s Children, Youth and Families Department is a convenient punching bag, and it certainly deserves much of the criticism it has received for some high-profile missteps. That’s because when the agency does bungle a case, it can have deadly consequences for some of society’s most vulnerable people – abused and neglected children.

Politicians of both parties on campaign trails pull no punches when they talk about the agency, routinely pledging to remake it from top to bottom. The incoming gubernatorial administration of Michelle Lujan Grisham is no exception, and without question there is work to do with an agency that has one of the most difficult jobs in government.

But the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez and current CYFD Secretary Monique Jacobson have done some things the new bosses should appreciate, keep and use as building blocks.

Jacobson, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business and an executive for PepsiCo in Chicago before moving to New Mexico, has moved the needle. Some achievements under her watch that are worth noting:

• The number of foster homes increased by 24 percent.

• The number of field workers increased by 30 percent, and the vacancy rate fell from 24 percent to 12 percent.

• CYFD rolled out its Law Enforcement Portal and trained more than 400 officers statewide who now have access to information about previous CYFD referrals and contacts with children and families when they respond to calls.

• The agency has added 24 community behavioral health clinicians to improve placement and treatment options for youths in Protective Services.

• And the latest entry on the list: just last week Jacobson and Martinez unveiled the agency’s new Children’s Wellness Center, a complex that brings all of CYFD’s services onto a single campus and contains a new Children’s Receiving Center for the agency’s Statewide Central Intake. It’s a badly needed facility that will provide a much more welcoming situation for traumatized kids taken into protective custody.

One disappointment Jacobson has had to face is her inability to persuade legislators to increase penalties for people convicted of child abuse resulting in death. That’s one Lujan Grisham should use her clout with a Democratic Legislature to finally get done.

Another area that’s been lacking is transparency. This summer 11 CYFD employees ranging from caseworkers through supervisory management were disciplined, including some being terminated, after one high-profile case in which CYFD investigated and determined children were allowed to remain in an apparently abusive situation far longer than they should. Yet CYFD still refuses to release the names of any of those disciplined, even when it involved changes in job status. Jacobson said her hands are tied due to state regulations, but many transparency advocates insist the state is misinterpreting the law. Yes, the law shields “matters of opinion,” but the job status of a public employee is not opinion – it’s fact. This is another area where Lujan Grisham can step in for the good of the department and the public trust it is working to regain.

But while cases like the deaths of Omaree Varela and Victoria Martens – and the missed opportunities to intervene – should continue to haunt us, and the need for additional public accountability should be acted upon, none of this should blind us to the structural progress that has been made. The incoming administration should be thankful for it as it continues to work to make CYFD better serve New Mexico’s children.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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