'This is really, really urgent,' says advocate for foster children - Albuquerque Journal

‘This is really, really urgent,’ says advocate for foster children

The Roundhouse in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Legislators got a peek Monday at what it was like for one young person to navigate New Mexico’s child welfare system without a foster family, shuffling from one residential treatment center to another before reaching adulthood.

Bette Fleishman, an attorney and executive director of Pegasus Legal Services for Children, walked lawmakers through the journey of her client, Kevin S., as he spent 6½ years in state custody – much of it cycling through multiple out-of-state treatment facilities.

He was the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed in 2018 that resulted in a landmark settlement committing New Mexico to a series of standards intended to help abused and neglected children.

Kevin S. “has basically grown up in group facilities. … Every time he moved, he lost all of those relationships,” Fleishman told lawmakers, underscoring his need for a consistent caregiver.

At 12 years old, she said, he sneaked out of a CYFD office overnight to look for his mother. As a teen, she said, he needed braces, but couldn’t get them. The conditions were so bad at one out-of-state facility, Fleishman said, that it was shut down by regulators.

No easy answers emerged Monday as legislators pressed for ways to accelerate reform of the child welfare system. But Fleishman used the example of Kevin S. to demonstrate the urgency of helping children find an appropriate foster family and services closer to home.

Barbara Vigil is secretary of the state Children, Youth and Families Department. A former New Mexico Supreme Court justice, she took over CYFD’s reins on Oct. 1. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Barbara Vigil, secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department, said her agency is committed to fulfilling its obligations under the Kevin S. settlement and making improvements as quickly as it can.

Lawmakers, she said, can expect a substantial budget request as the department pushes to raise the pay of its workforce, recruit more employees and coordinate with other state agencies to build a robust network of behavioral health services in New Mexico.

But she also said CYFD is already making progress.

The number of children in out-of-state congregate care facilities plunged from 68 at one point in 2019 to 17 this month, according to figures released by CYFD.

“We are continuing to build the foundation necessary for lasting change,” Vigil told lawmakers. But “there’s a lot that needs to be done, we recognize that.”

The settlement agreement called for no child under 18 to be placed with an out-of-state provider by December 2020 unless there were extraordinary circumstances necessary to protect the safety and security of the child – a deadline the state failed to meet, according to a recent report issued by independent monitors.

The legal team representing plaintiffs in the settlement said the state has made progress, but not enough. They acknowledged it isn’t necessarily for lack of effort.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys encouraged lawmakers to provide CYFD with the funding it needs to fulfill its obligation, but also to hold the agency accountable for making changes “on the ground” that make a meaningful difference in the lives of kids in the system.

“This is urgent,” Fleishman said. “This is really, really urgent, and it will take all of us to move forward.”

The presentation came as New Mexico lawmakers prepare to open a 60-day session Jan. 17.

The Children, Youth and Families Department has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years as the state has been rattled by shocking cases of child abuse, some resulting in death, and questions about whether they could have been prevented.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed Vigil, a former state Supreme Court justice, to lead the agency just over a year ago.

Vigil has pledged to make CYFD more transparent and effective.

In Monday’s hearing, members of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee dedicated more than three hours to listening to CYFD officials and representatives of the plaintiffs in the Kevin S. case discuss the status of their settlement.

Lawmakers encouraged the two sides to cooperate and make clear requests about how the Legislature can help.

“We want to provide you with the resources you need to get this done,” state Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, said.

Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat elected to serve as House majority leader in the upcoming session, said the scope of the problem goes beyond just the children in state custody. Their parents, she said, also need services to address their own trauma, and break the cycle of abuse.

“It breaks my heart,” Chasey said.

As for Kevin S, Fleishman said he is now 18 and has aged out of the system, but he is living in a good home and receiving developmental disability services. She credited state officials for their help this year.

“All that said, he’s actually a wonderful young man,” Fleishman said.

His mother died before they could be reunited.

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