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Editorial: It’s time to fix state’s child protection system

Omaree, BreAndra, Izabellah, Leland.

Their names – and their faces – represent the pervasive child abuse and neglect problem that makes New Mexico a place where it’s not always easy – or safe – to be a kid. For those four children, it was deadly.

Facts laid out in a special two-part series by Journal investigative reporter Colleen Heild are startling and unsettling:

  • Nationally, since fiscal 2010, New Mexico has been in the top six states for child abuse and neglect deaths per 100,000 children.
  • Since FY 2008, New Mexico consistently has ranked near the top among states for the revictimization of children within six months of a substantiated abuse or neglect case.
  • Since FY 2008, 79 New Mexico children have died from child abuse or neglect. One fourth of their families had previous contact with the Children Youth and Families Department, the state agency charged with protecting children.
  • In FY 2012, nearly 1,800 children were placed in foster care in New Mexico. More than 85 percent had been named in at least one prior CYFD report and 26 percent had seven or more prior reports.
  • Children victimized in New Mexico rose nearly 20 percent in recent years, while national victimization rates declined.
  • The state was at the top among roughly 30 states that reported the percentage of child abuse victims’ caregivers who were at risk for alcohol or drug abuse.

New Mexico is infamous for being at the bottom of good lists and at the top of bad ones: teen pregnancy, addiction, DWI, poverty, education and more.

CYFD has struggled to try to turn the tide.

A hiring freeze that began in the latter part of the Gov. Bill Richardson era stunted the agency’s staffing levels. And even though about 300 caseworkers have been hired since Gov. Susana Martinez took office, almost that many have left. Currently, caseloads in some counties are about double the national standard, workers are burning out, turnover is high and hiring qualified people is challenging.

Just a few months after 17-month-old BreAndra Peña was found unresponsive in the Española home of her mother’s cousin and in the care of the cousin’s live-in boyfriend, the Legislative Finance Committee warned that the state Protective Services Division’s caseload was “dangerously high.”

After the death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela at the hands of his mother, the Martinez administration proposed and the Legislature passed an additional 3 percent pay hike for CYFD investigators.

Omaree’s death also put the spotlight on law enforcement. Faced with that death and other fatal child abuse cases, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry decided to do something rather than wring his hands. He hired a former police commander to look at how the police department investigates child abuse allegations and how it works with other agencies, most notably CYFD.

CYFD currently is allowing about half of the children it believes are being abused or neglected to stay in their homes. But once a case is closed, old abuse habits can – and do – resume.

More follow-up and monitoring of families in crisis is urgently needed. CYFD should be given more authority to make that happen. Unfortunately, a Martinez administration bill that would have allowed CYFD to use the court system to exert leverage on families to participate in state programs died in the last session.

This situation is unacceptable. New Mexico’s child protection systems are failing too many children. The governor and lawmakers should see that a thorough review of CYFD and how it functions with other agencies is done and that appropriate reforms are made.

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.