Bid to boost oversight of child welfare cases gains

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The creation of a new independent office to oversee legal representation for New Mexico children and families involved in abuse and neglect cases is one step closer, after a bill calling for such a step unanimously passed its first Senate committee Monday.

New Mexico has long ranked among the worst states for child well-being, and backers of the proposal say it could reduce unnecessarily long stays in foster care for some minors.

“This is just going to be a game-changer,” said Sen. Antoinette Sedillo-Lopez, D-Albuquerque, just before the bill passed the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee 7-0.

The legislation, Senate Bill 127, would authorize the creation of the Office of Family Representation and Advocacy to oversee representation in child welfare disputes.

The office would be modeled after the Law Offices of the Public Defender, which was established as a stand-alone agency after voters approved a 2012 constitutional amendment.

A task force that was created in 2019 and tasked with improving legal representation in cases involving abuse and neglect of minors came up with the idea for an independent office, leading to this year’s legislation.

However, the creation of such an office would likely require additional state funding in future years, even though current state and federal funds could cover at least some of the cost, according to a fiscal analysis of the bill.

The analysis estimated that more than $7 million in new state funding would ultimately be necessary, and the bill approved Monday would not appropriate any dollars.

But a 13-member commission overseeing the new office would have until the end of 2022 to hire a permanent director. A temporary director could be appointed in the meantime.

Under New Mexico’s current system, more than 100 attorneys provide legally required representation under contract for children and families in abuse and neglect cases, according to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.

That’s led to a system that’s fragmented and often frustrating to navigate, backers of the proposed legislation said.

And several parents and former foster children testified Monday that they met their appointed attorneys only a few minutes before court hearings.

“There’s a lack of consistency, there’s a lack of oversight, and there’s a lack of accountability” in how the lawyers operate, Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Vigil testified.

The legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, now advances to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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