Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the number of New Mexico children placed into out-of-state treatment centers. Out-of-state congregate care placements actually dropped from 65 children as of 2019 to 17 children as of this month.
Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico’s child welfare agency has reduced the number of children placed in congregate care settings over the past four years, with about 86% of the nearly 1,900 children in the agency’s custody now placed in foster homes or other residential-type settings.
The trend comes as the Children, Youth and Families Department tries to comply with a 2018 settlement that obligated the state to follow a series of standards intended to help abused and neglected children.
While the number of children sent to in-state and out-of-state treatment centers has declined from 277 in August 2018 to 88 as of this August, according to agency data, New Mexico’s child mistreatment rate has hovered at around the same level – significantly above the national average.
Children, Youth and Families Secretary Barbara Vigil told lawmakers Monday that keeping children with their families is “not always the answer.” But, when removal is deemed necessary, the agency strives to place abused children in foster homes – with or without relatives – in or near their home communities.
“Our goal and our purpose is to keep children safe,” Vigil said.
New Mexico’s child welfare system has come under scrutiny in recent years amid a string of gut-wrenching child abuse cases, some resulting in death, and questions about whether such cases could have been prevented.
Lawmakers this year gave CYFD a budget increase in an attempt to bolster staffing levels and improve employee retention. They also appropriated more than $50 million to higher education institutions to increase social worker training programs.
But some legislators expressed frustration with high turnover and chronically high CYFD vacancy rates.
Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said during Monday’s meeting of the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee that efforts to hire more caseworkers have backfired in some cases, since newly hired employees lack qualifications for the job.
“We basically say it doesn’t matter whether they’re a social worker or not, we’ll just call them one and, by gosh, we’ll be fine,” Ortiz y Pino said.
For her part, Vigil acknowledged the agency’s plan to increase the recruitment and retention of more CYFD caseworkers will take time, but expressed optimism it will pay off in future years.
However, she said high caseloads have complicated the agency’s efforts and cited workforce development as top priority in the upcoming 60-day legislative session.
“It literally is a crisis in my view that unless we expand the workforce … that we will continue to struggle to meet our commitments” under the 2018 settlement, Vigil told lawmakers.
The agency has not spent all its budgeted funds in some recent years, however, and lawmakers say some systemic problems have been inherited by CYFD’s current leadership.
“It is more than time that it gets fixed once and for all,” Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, said during Monday’s hearing.