Las Cruces Democrat Sen. Joseph Cervantes recently summed up the exasperation many lawmakers and New Mexicans feel toward the Children, Youth and Families Department.
Just last month the public was shocked to learn a 10-year-old foster child was sexually assaulted by a 14-year-old foster youth in a bathroom of CYFD’s main office building in Albuquerque. CYFD seemingly can’t keep kids safe even when they’re in the heart of the agency’s complex on Indian School Road.
“We’re telling CYFD to get off their ass,” Cervantes said during a committee hearing. “I don’t have a nice way to say this any more. I’m beyond frustrated.”
The frustration of lawmakers is readily apparent in the 60-day session entering its last week; more than 30 child welfare bills have been filed.
Several of those bills have merit, and their passage could actually, finally make a difference.
House Bill 10, whose supporters include CYFD and child advocacy groups, would relax some of the confidentiality restrictions in the Children’s Code, allowing CYFD’s Child Protective Services division to disclose more information to more entities.
It sailed through the House Health and Human Services Committee last week by a unanimous vote. But time is running out before the session ends at noon Saturday, and lawmakers should make this one a priority.
HB 10 would greatly expand information that can be released about a case involving a child who has died or nearly died as a result of abuse or neglect, such as the child’s cause of death, where the child was living at the time and prior reports of abuse or neglect.
“When a child who is alleged to have been neglected or abused dies, the public asks ‘how could this have happened,’ and, unfortunately, almost always there have been no public answers,” said bill sponsor Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque. “This is truly a sea change in the role of the agency in helping people understand in providing answers to important questions when we have children who are hurt or die when in custody of the department.”
The bill also allows for more information to be given to a foster parent, prospective foster parent, grandparent, sibling or relative being considered for placement about the many needs of the child. This seems obvious: A person caring for a child needs this information.
The bill also requires that CYFD create a portal on its website disclosing mandated reports and basic data such as the number of fatalities or near fatalities of children in CYFD custody and the number of abuse and neglect complaints that lead to investigations.
But while HB 10 would be an important step, it’s not nearly enough. Senate Bill 373 and House Bill 11, one sponsored by House Democrats and the other by Senate Republicans, are equally as important. These bills would create a new child advocacy office outside of CYFD to investigate complaints and provide some oversight.
While the governor has acknowledged CYFD is “dysfunctional,” she has balked at an ombudsman or any separate oversight, saying that could lead to a confrontational relationship between government offices and make it harder for CYFD to hire new social workers.
Instead, she last month announced a “shakeup” of CYFD that entailed creating an “office of innovation” within the CYFD, a new advisory council and a national search to hire several new top agency officials. Unfortunately, CYFD’s troubles have spanned too many years and too many administrations for the public to believe it can be fixed entirely from within. Despite a possible veto by the governor, the House passed HB 11 56-9 on Wednesday. The Senate later Wednesday passed SB 373 on a 30-8 vote.
Both bills would establish an Office of the Child Advocate within the state Attorney General’s Office that would accept complaints, investigate and attempt to resolve them and evaluate CYFD policies and procedures.
Matthews is correct when she said the Legislature should seize the chance in the final days of this year’s session to strengthen oversight and operations of CYFD.
“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.”
It is critical the House and Senate get together this week and sign off on identical legislation.
Other important measures are SB 150, which would require CYFD to conduct a family assessment when a newborn suffers from drug withdrawals and parents don’t comply with a hospital-issued plan of care; SB 107, which gives CYFD up to three days, instead of two days, to file petitions in cases where the agency has taken custody of a child; and HB 434, which would change self-care plans for newborns.
There is no denying CYFD has one of the most important and difficult tasks in all of state government. There also is no denying that — for a multitude of reasons — it has failed too many of our most vulnerable children, ending in too many tragedies.
We have the opportunity to make real change here. We urge lawmakers and the governor to move forward with these bills.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.