Lawmakers turn budget focus to preventing child abuse - Albuquerque Journal

Lawmakers turn budget focus to preventing child abuse

Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, looks through exhibits Wednesday during a meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee in Chama. As the meeting continued Thursday, lawmakers heard presentations on child abuse and efforts to help families. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Far fewer children in New Mexico’s child protection system receive services intended to prevent maltreatment from their families than the national average – a reflection of the opportunity, legislative analysts say, to focus more on preventing abuse.

About five of every 1,000 children in the state system are part of families connected with prevention services, well below the national rate of 43 children, according to a report presented Thursday to the Legislative Finance Committee.

The prevention statistics triggered debate among lawmakers over where to assign blame and how to better prevent abuse before it happens when they craft next year’s budget for the Children, Youth and Families department.

The state has been rattled by a series of shocking cases of abuse in recent years – including a lawsuit over the death of a 4-year-old boy, James Dunklee Cruz, who had been the subject of 10 referrals of child abuse or neglect before he was found unresponsive in late 2019, beaten to death by a man CYFD warned the mom not to live with.

State Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said preventing some abuse is simply outside the agency’s control. Families either aren’t willing to accept services, she said, or the services aren’t available at all.

But complicating matters, Kernan said, is the “tug of war” between the department’s dual goals – avoiding the trauma of removing a child from the home but also safeguarding their life.

“We have kids who need to be taken from those families,” Kernan said. “The safety of those children I don’t believe is coming first.”

New Mexico has some of the nation’s highest rates of alcohol and drug abuse, a factor in maltreatment rates, analysts said.

Barbara Vigil, the state’s secretary for children, youth and families, defended the work of case workers but said they need more support, including higher compensation and a larger staff.

“They’re choosing to work in a crisis situation and giving their heart and soul to helping families,” she said.

Vigil outlined a host of steps intended to bolster prevention efforts – including a recruitment drive at universities to help fill vacancies, targeted training for CYFD employees already on staff and coordination with other state agencies to connect more families with services.

“We’re not afraid of being held accountable,” Vigil said.

The CYFD hearing comes as members of the Legislative Finance Committee prepare to craft recommendations for next year’s state budget. New Mexico is awash in new revenue thanks to an oil boom, consumer spending and wage growth.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the LFC, urged the department to quickly take advantage of the funding already authorized by lawmakers to help expand CYFD’s workforce. She repeatedly pressed Vigil for specifics on the number employees trained, steps to hire new workers and other progress.

“It doesn’t help us to think we’re doing something only to find out later, gosh, we’re still in planning mode,” Lundstrom said.

The report by LFC staff analysts made clear that the Children, Youth and Families Department has made progress directing money toward prevention, but with plenty of room for improvement left.

Spending on prevention exploded from just $900,000 in 2017 to $10.3 million in the fiscal year that ended this summer, according to the analysts’ report. But that’s just a small slice of money compared to the agency’s overall spending.

Prevention efforts include “differential response,” or a strategy of connecting families with services if the complaint against them doesn’t rise to the level of requiring foster care or an investigation. The goal is to help the family – with mental health services, food, housing or other aid – before more serious maltreatment of a child occurs.

Staff turnover, vacancies and high case loads are among the factors that may be hindering the state’s prevention efforts, analysts told legislators.

New Mexico, the analysts said, is also one of just 10 states that hasn’t yet submitted a plan to the federal government under the Family First Prevention Services Act, which can award funding to help focus on early intervention.

Vigil said she expects the plan to be submitted next month.

Sen. George Muñoz, a Gallup Democrat and vice chairman of the Legislative Finance Committee, suggested the department should file the plan quickly. Given the scope of the challenges, he said, he doesn’t want New Mexico to be among the last couple of states to submit.

“I don’t want to hear that,” he warned.

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