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NM struggles with child neglect, abuse

Moses Johnson, left, and Brandon Reynolds wait for their detention hearings in District Court in Albuquerque last week. Both face charges of child abuse resulting in death. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Just days apart this spring, a 5-year-old child was beaten to death with a shoe in Albuquerque and another was smothered in Farmington – in each case, by the child’s father, police say.

The killings – and other incidents this spring – have rocked New Mexico as the state grapples with whether it’s doing enough to protect youngsters from abuse and neglect.

The challenge runs deep.

Only three states had a higher rate of child maltreatment than New Mexico in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

But the new head of New Mexico’s child welfare agency says he is optimistic about a package of legislation approved this year to reduce abuse and neglect – largely by providing services and employing a less punitive approach to families that clearly need help.

“I think it will absolutely be a good step forward,” said Brian Blalock, Cabinet secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department.

One measure calls for alerting CYFD whenever an infant tests positive for addictive substances – with the goal of allowing the department to assess the family situation and provide help, without the opening of a formal abuse or neglect case.

Another bill sets up an “alternative response” system so that when a child isn’t in immediate danger – but there’s a report of abuse or neglect – the department can work to connect the families with services rather than pursue an investigation or removal of the child from the home.

Blalock said that more will have to be done, of course, but that the new laws are a good start.

But some say the state did too little in this year’s legislative session – the first since Democrats swept every statewide office and expanded their majority in the House in the 2018 general election.

Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, said helping families that need help should be balanced with what’s best for children who might be better off in another home.

“We can’t help the parent at the risk of a new generation,” she said.

‘Alternative response’

One of the keys to this year’s package of child welfare legislation is something known throughout the country as alternative response. Essentially, in some states, certain reports of abuse or neglect are assigned to an alternative track rather than a formal investigation.

House Bill 376 – approved with bipartisan support this year – will establish a similar system in New Mexico, starting in July 2020. The alternative response will be available after the state conducts an initial evaluation of a report of abuse or neglect and finds that the child isn’t in immediate danger.

The state would assess the family situation and may offer or provide services – such as counseling or training for parents – aimed at addressing the causes of the problem that affects the child.

If the family refuses to participate, the state could opt to proceed with an investigation.

Most maltreatment cases involve allegations of neglect, and in New Mexico, most neglect cases involve a caregiver with a drug or alcohol problem, according to analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee.

Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat and sponsor of the legislation, said the goal is to focus on prevention of abuse and neglect rather than punishment. Alternative-response programs have worked well in other states, she said, and a pilot project in New Mexico about a dozen years ago showed promising results.

“The return on investment is pretty staggering,” she said.

Providing services can be an alternative to removing a child from a home, which creates its own trauma for the child, Chasey said. She sees the system up close as a court-appointed attorney in abuse and neglect cases.

“The long-range outcomes are better when kids are with their own families,” Chasey said.

Also part of this year’s legislative package is a bill that requires CYFD to be notified when an infant tests positive for an addictive substance.

The state would assess the family situation and create a plan of care to help ensure the baby’s safety and address substance abuse by the caregiver. It would bring the state into compliance with federal requirements and make the state eligible for an extra $200,000 a year in funding, Blalock said.

The measure passed the House 48-20 and the Senate 35-0 before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed it into law.

Fajardo, meanwhile, says much more could be done – including her own proposal to establish an ombudsman to consider complaints filed by foster families.

A proposal to expand New Mexico’s child abuse reporting laws also failed to make it through this year’s session.

Maltreatment rate

It will take time, of course, to evaluate the effect of the new legislation, none of which has gone into effect yet.

But the problem isn’t new.

New Mexico’s rate of child maltreatment – such as abuse and neglect – has been far higher than the national average in each of the past five years for which data are available, according to a report by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In 2017, the state’s rate of maltreatment climbed to 17.6 victims per 1,000 children, or nearly twice the national average of 9.1.

Only three states – Kentucky, Indiana and Massachusetts – had higher rates that year, according to the federal report. West Virginia had the same rate as New Mexico.

Recently, in Farmington, a 45-year-old man was arrested March 31 and charged with killing his 5-year-old son by smothering him with a pillow, police said.

Later that week, a 36-year-old man in Albuquerque was arrested and charged in connection with the death of his 5-year-old daughter, who was beaten with a water shoe, police said.

Charges are pending in each case.

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