A sweeping reform of the state’s Children Youth and Families Department has been long overdue.
Now, in the wake of the tragic death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela in December, and other recent child abuse deaths, Gov. Susana Martinez has ordered significant and structural changes to the agency charged with protecting the state’s children.
New Mexico has an abysmal record when it comes to doing just that. Since fiscal year 2008, 79 New Mexico children have died from child abuse or neglect. Since fiscal 2010, New Mexico has been in the top six states for child abuse and neglect deaths per 100,000 children. Going back to 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.
Martinez said the reforms emerged from an intensive review of Omaree’s death at the hands of his mother. Although CYFD did not initially say how many times the Varela family had contact with CYFD, it recently confirmed there were nine referrals, of which two were substantiated.
The governor said that while she does not believe CYFD dropped the ball in Omaree’s case, the review did identify areas to improve the agency. Key among them, better communication and follow-through between CYFD and other agencies, keeping families who have been investigated several times on CYFD’s radar and boosting efforts to recruit and retain caseworkers.
The centerpiece of the governor’s reform effort is creating child advocacy centers throughout the state where caseworkers, police officers and other specialists can investigate cases together. One will be setting up operations in the current Family Advocacy Center in Albuquerque, and a location has been identified for one in Valencia County.
Among other changes, a family with two CYFD child abuse or neglect investigations, whether substantiated or not, will be reviewed by agency supervisors with each subsequent referral.
In Bernalillo County, a pilot program will employ family support workers, a new category of agency social worker, to stay in touch with families that have been the subject of three or more CYFD child welfare investigations within 10 years.
Burnout and a high turnover rate keep the agency’s vacancy rate at about 15 percent. To address staffing, CYFD will hire a specialist to recruit caseworkers, and their minimum salary is being increased by 3 percent. Existing caseworkers will get a 4 percent raise this fiscal year and another 3 percent raise in FY 2015.
Especially encouraging is the emphasis on better communication between CYFD and law enforcement – which in Omaree’s case was lacking at times. Caseworkers will be required to seek police reports or other police records before making an investigative decision; law enforcement agencies under Martinez’ authority will be required to cooperate with CYFD in a timely fashion; and officers sent on child abuse calls will have to check with CYFD to find out if there have been prior agency interactions with the family.
This is a swift and hopeful reaction to a sad situation. Are there other areas that could be improved? Of course. But the governor’s proposed changes are major initiatives that should help CYFD become more responsive to child abuse and neglect reports and with work lead to a reduction in injuries or deaths of children in New Mexico.
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.