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State backs off on child care assistance

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify that CYFD’s “proposed” entry point for Child Care Assistance is 160% of the Federal Poverty Level. Eligibility is currently available to families who do not exceed 200% of the FPL. Also updated is the number of New Mexico children receiving CYFD child care subsidies as of April.

Underfunding by the New Mexico Legislature during the last session could lead to reductions in the number of families eligible for the Child Care Assistance Program administered by the state Children, Youth and Families Department, something both CYFD and parents say they want to avoid.

The big issues, parents say, are the reduction in eligibility caps, the cost of co-payments and the method CYFD uses to calculate those co-payments.

The proposed entry point for a family to qualify for CYFD’s Child Care Assistance Program is a gross income that is 160% of the federal poverty level. A family of three making 160% of the federal poverty level earns $2,844 a month.

Currently, to be enrolled for Child Care Assistance, a family cannot have a gross income of more than  200% of the federal poverty level.

Parents will get a chance to weigh in on the need for affordable child care as well as proposed CYFD regulations regarding child care assistance during a July 8 hearing in Santa Fe.

That hearing comes in the aftermath of a lawsuit filed in September against CYFD by several parents and the grass-roots organization Olé, who were represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

The lawsuit claimed that CYFD illegally established a policy of denying child care assistance to families with incomes over 150% of the federal poverty level without publishing a regulation or going through the required public comment and hearing process.

In addition, the lawsuit argued, CYFD illegally failed to provide adequate notice to families about their child care benefits or establish a regulation that explains how CYFD determines the share of costs – the co-payment – the family has to pay.

Earlier this month, the 1st Judicial District Court in Santa Fe issued an order requiring CYFD to:

• Maintain the current eligibility level until or unless CYFD lawfully enacts regulations with public comment with a different eligibility level.

• Put into regulation child care assistance eligibility requirements, including how CYFD calculates the amount of costs shared by parents.

• Revise notices and forms that families receive or fill out in the application process.

• Revise the manual CYFD workers use to determine eligibility for assistance.

• Post eligibility information and application rights in all CYFD offices.

“The Child Care Assistance Program helps low-income families, where parents are working or enrolled in school,” said Maria Griego, supervising attorney of the public benefits team at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

“Child Care Assistance gives parents peace of mind that their kids are left in safe and reliable care,” she said. “Reducing eligibility is a bad idea, because it will make thousands of families who would be eligible for the program ineligible. In real terms, it means that families would have to reduce their work hours, drop out of school or leave their kids with unreliable or unlicensed child care.”

As of April, there were 20,092 children in New Mexico receiving CYFD child care subsidies.

Under state law, families were previously eligible for Child Care Assistance with incomes up to 200% of the federal poverty level. Under former Gov. Susana Martinez, the state reduced the eligibility to 150%, a measure that was done without going through the public regulatory process, and one of the issues that led to the lawsuit, Griego said.

Another key issue was that CYFD “did not have information in regulation about how co-payments were calculated,” she said. “They had a process, but it was kept from the public and was an internal process that was not in regulation.”

And co-payments can be unaffordable for some families, Griego said. Under federal guidelines, co-payments for child care assistance should be no more than 7% of a family’s income. “But New Mexico doesn’t have any caps on percentage of income a family must pay, so we see clients who pay up to 30% of their family’s monthly income on those co-payments.”

CYFD spokesman Charlie Pabst Moore, acknowledged that “the previous administration changed the income caps to 150% of the federal poverty level, and it was done without public comment or a public hearing.”

As a result of the lawsuit, the state agreed to raise the cap back up to 200% and attempted during the last legislative session to get enough funding to do that. That attempt failed, “so now we’re proposing 160% as a starting point and expect to negotiate from there,” he said.

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