The appointment of retired Justice Barbara J. Vigil as the new Cabinet secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department is a welcome change after the department’s recent challenges with distrust and lack of transparency. Yet, regardless of its leadership, our community must ask itself, what will ensure that children and youth in New Mexico are safe and healthy?
Seventy-four percent of substantiated child welfare cases in New Mexico result from allegations of neglect, not abuse, which is largely the failure of a family to provide needed food, clothing, housing, child care, health care or other basic needs. This is directly related to poverty, and as a state with the third-highest poverty rate in the country with nearly one in four children under 18 years old living in poverty in 2019, this should come as no surprise.
Poverty is a systemic problem, not an individual failing. As investments in families in recent decades have diminished and challenges are left unaddressed, growing economic inequality is leaving families and children in precarious living conditions. Families are not supported in accessing affordable health care, housing and child care as well as employment that pays a living wage. This is where the child welfare system should turn its attention – addressing root causes of abuse and neglect to prevent child maltreatment and create the best outcomes for children and families.
As an organization that partners with young people impacted by systems and with a 30-plus-year history in the field of child welfare, we recognize that running CYFD is among the hardest jobs in the state. Managing an institution that is held responsible for child abuse-related fatalities cannot be easy. However, part of the challenge is that CYFD is designed to surveil, punish and separate families when it should be lifting up and supporting them. It pulls children and young people out of their communities and away from their support structures, traumatizing them after they have already gone through so much. This is especially true for children and youth of color, who are separated from their families at alarmingly high rates. So when studies suggest children who are separated from their families are at a higher risk of juvenile and adult criminal behavior and exhibit little to no measurable benefit in their mental health outcomes or behavior problems, we must ask – is family separation going to lead to the outcomes we seek from CYFD?
The design and culture of CYFD itself needs to change. It must truly connect with and listen to the people impacted by CYFD, who repeatedly tell us what they need to do better for their children and families. New Mexico deserves a leader who understands humility, the importance of community investments, and how to build trust, respect and relationships with families as well as the community partners that do the work that CYFD fails to do.
We expect no less from Justice Vigil. New Mexico deserves a department that is designed to uplift and keep families together. We should continue to hold leaders accountable to this vision and continue to ask ourselves, can CYFD do that on its own? Or is it time for New Mexico to reimagine new support systems for youth and families?
NMCAN, a nonprofit organization here in Albuquerque that has been working in the child welfare field for over 30 years with a particular focus on partnering with young people impacted by the foster care and juvenile justice systems.