Lawmakers approve independent child advocacy office bills, even as veto threat looms - Albuquerque Journal

Lawmakers approve independent child advocacy office bills, even as veto threat looms

Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, right, talks with Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, before the start of an evening House floor session this month. A bill sponsored by Matthews creating an independent office to handle disputes involving the Children, Youth and Families Department was approved Wednesday by a 56-9 vote in the House. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — Fast-moving plans to create an outside office to help oversee New Mexico’s troubled child welfare agency and investigate complaints is picking up broad support at the Roundhouse, despite Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s opposition to the idea.

The state House voted 56-9 on Wednesday in favor of a bill that would establish an Office of the Child Advocate within the state Attorney General’s Office.

And the Senate later in the day passed similar legislation on a 30-8 vote.

Rep. Marian Matthews, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the House bill, said the Legislature should seize the chance in the final days of this year’s session to strengthen oversight and operations of the Children, Youth and Families Department.

“We really have an opportunity this session to make some substantial changes in the laws that govern CYFD,” she said, “and those changes I believe will make it a more effective and responsive agency.”

In the other chamber, Republican Sen. Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte urged her colleagues to pass their version of the measure, Senate Bill 373.

“We have a crisis going on in New Mexico,” Diamond said. “We’re seeing the most horrific cases of child abuse in the nation.”

The new office would operate an electronic portal and telephone line to accept complaints, investigate and attempt to resolve complaints, and evaluate CYFD policies and procedures.

“This is a well-crafted bill,” Rep. Alan Martinez, R-Bernalillo, said. “We owe it to our kids.”

Rep. Tara Jaramillo, a Socorro Democrat and co-sponsor, said the legislation, House Bill 11, would make New Mexico the 44th state with an ombudsman-like office for its child-welfare system.

But the bills could face long odds of approval even if they advance to the governor’s desk, as Lujan Grisham said last month that creating an outside office to handle complaints could lead to friction and make it harder for CYFD to hire new social workers.

The Democratic governor also signed an executive order creating an internal office of innovation within CYFD and a new advisory council, while also saying her administration would launch a national search to hire several new top agency officials.

But that order hasn’t stopped legislators from advancing a range of bills aimed at improving CYFD.

While some of the measures have received bipartisan support, a mix of nine Democrats and Republicans opposed the House legislation on Wednesday.

Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, a Mesilla Democrat who opposed the measure, said the bill didn’t adequately reflect the importance of reuniting families and supporting mothers who have struggled.

“We have thrown away these mothers and these families where these kids came from,” Lara Cadena said.

The House and Senate must sign off on identical legislation to grant final approval to a bill, so one chamber or the other would need to approve the other’s CYFD bill to send it to the governor.

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