Gov. Susana Martinez says there was nothing her Children, Youth & Families Department could have done to predict or prevent the latest horrific child abuse case in Albuquerque, this one in which a 4-month-old girl was beaten and raped, allegedly by her mother’s boyfriend.
Nothing the agency could have done, either, she says, to predict or prevent the death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela, who died in December after being kicked by his mother.
Many other states would argue with that. Why? Because they have implemented a risk assessment system different from the one New Mexico uses, one that is credited with saving children from harm and saving states money. And one that was recommended to CYFD by the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee in 2011.
Both of the children Martinez was discussing were the subject of prior referrals to CYFD. Omaree came on CYFD’s radar at least three times – in an investigation in 2009 that was resolved two years later with his mother regaining custody, again in 2012 when he showed up at school with a bruise and a cut, and said his mother hit him, and two months later in 2012 after a customer at a store called police to say he saw her punch the boy. It’s unclear what CYFD did in the first 2012 case. It declined to open a case on him in the second one.
The 4-month-old, according to the governor, was the subject of a CYFD referral when she was born with traces of THC in her blood and when her mother missed a doctor appointment.
How could anyone have predicted these kids might be in serious trouble later? It turns out that’s no great trick.
Under New Mexico’s approach to protecting children, CYFD looks into every complaint of suspected abuse and neglect. But it intervenes only when it finds credible corroborating evidence of abuse.
CYFD receives about 32,000 reports each year and “screens in” about 18,000 cases a year for investigations.
The trend in some other states is to stay involved even when there’s no evidence the child was the subject of abuse; in New Mexico, that would be the 14,000 cases that aren’t screened in for investigation.
That’s because a host of circumstances can reliably predict in which families abuse will occur. Looking for those red flags, identifying those families, and offering them coordinated services and guidance toward forming a more stable household and learning parenting skills is known as “alternative response” or “differential response” in the child welfare world.
It’s a switch from just focusing on “What happened?” and “Can we arrest the parent?” toward understanding families’ broader needs so they can do better by their kids.
It’s been piloted or implemented in about 20 states and, according to the LFC, it “lowers costs to the child welfare system over time and improves safety outcomes by reducing out-of-home placements.”
Minnesota, for example, employs traditional investigations for credible serious child abuse allegations and alternative response for reports of less serious or unsubstantiated abuse. The state also employs a third tier, a parent support outreach program for families that are homeless, or have histories of mental illness, substance abuse or domestic violence. Teachers, neighbors, doctors, counselors and others who come into contact with parents can refer them, or parents themselves can ask to be part of the program.
In 2000, Minnesota recorded more than 11,000 cases of abuse and neglect. In 2010, six years after the new system was implemented statewide, that had dropped to about 4,600.
When Ohio went to a alternative response model, the rate of children being harmed in the next year was reduced by 16 percent.
A version of the approach was piloted in Bernalillo County from 2005 to 2007 but never went statewide. According to the LFC, families that participated had a lower rate of maltreatment reports by almost half and had fewer children removed to foster care.
In a report to CYFD Secretary Yolanda Deines in 2011, the LFC staff said, “Implementing a differential response system provides better outcomes for children, more positive experiences for families, and long-term cost savings.”
But the department didn’t do it. Deines, in a letter to the LFC chairman, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said the department “does not concur with this recommendation.” She said a differential response system relies on a comprehensive system of community services to be effective and said that doesn’t exist in New Mexico.
Her spokesman told me that, while the recommendation is well-intended, it would be costly.
“We don’t have the luxury of unlimited resources, which is why we have a robust intake system that screens calls in for investigation and screens out calls that would not fit within the role played by CYFD,” spokesman Henry Varela said.
Instead, he said, CYFD’s top priority is raising the pay of investigators and caseworkers so the agency can better recruit and retain them.
Lawmakers, who could amend the Children’s Code to require a differential response model, haven’t taken up the issue, either.
The LFC estimated the program would cost $96 for each person provided services and save $882 per person in avoided costs, such as health care, police response, jail and prison costs.
New Mexico’s early childhood task force has also made recommendations along the same lines, suggesting widespread screening of expecting parents, and parents of newborns and toddlers for red flags that might identify vulnerable families that could benefit from intervention.
Omaree’s red flags? He was born to a single mother who was doing time in state prison for drug trafficking. His biological father also had a record. Police had received at least three reports of his being mistreated. And he was living with a stepfather who had served time for car theft and drug trafficking.
The 4-year-old? She was born to a single mother who exposed her to marijuana in utero.
It is the easiest thing in the world to blame a child abuser for abuse. And it’s the least helpful because that discussion happens, by definition, after the damage has been done.
Isn’t it time to have a more intelligent discussion about how to keep kids safe?