I write knowing at this very minute there are children being abused or neglected, with their most basic needs going unmet. Why? What state or community would allow such – and even be complicit in letting it happen?
As a former foster parent, a mom, an attorney and former district attorney, I have struggled to answer these questions. We must protect our youngest and most vulnerable citizens. We have tasked CYFD with protecting our children, but it has failed miserably as is evidenced by recent high-profile cases. It would be easy to blame CYFD employees as incompetent and heartless. However, the problems run deeper and in part stem from the fact the New Mexico Children’s Code prioritizes keeping families together and reuniting the culpable parent(s) with the harmed child. The wellbeing and interests of the child take a backseat. It is time to put our children first.
Families matter, as do parental rights. In a perfect world, families stay together, and parents have the discretion to raise their children as they see fit within the boundaries of the law. But we don’t live in a perfect world. When parents abuse and neglect their kids and fail time and time again to rectify the situation, the needs and rights of the child should become the priority. Children are being raised in the foster care system while parents are being given chance after chance to rehabilitate themselves. The majority never do. By the time CYFD moves to relinquish parental rights, the children are older, have lived a dysfunctional life and are unadoptable. They have wounded childhoods from which they will never recover. Abused and neglected children lead dysfunctional lives in adulthood, can lack the skills to care for their own children, may self-medicate with alcohol and drugs and frequently become engaged with the criminal justice system.
Most states, like ours, prioritize keeping families together. They have the same dismal record that New Mexico does. I am not in disagreement with the value. But when it doesn’t work, it’s time to change. Let’s decide to put the child’s interests first. When a family can be reunited and the child will not suffer continued abuse, then reunite them. Put into place a reliable system of check-ups over an extended period to ensure the child is doing well. If abuse or neglect continues, swiftly move to terminate parental rights and make every attempt to place the child into an adoptive home. Every child needs to feel they belong, are loved, and have the security and stability to grow into the best version of themselves. Growing up is challenging under the best circumstances. No child should have the experience of daily pain and suffering, questioning why no one loves them or cares.
Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats our children.” New Mexico children are being hurt and killed. We all have a lot of soul-searching to do.