RIO RANCHO, N.M. — Sandoval County has recently seen a significant increase in the number of children repeatedly placed in protective care by the Children, Youth and Families Department, according to a late 2013 report available on the CYFD website.
The uptick in the last six months of 2013 happened while CYFD received more reports of child abuse or neglect, investigated increasingly fewer of those reports and placed a smaller number of kids in foster care.
Over the same period of time, the local state district court started a program for reuniting more quickly the children in CYFD care and the parents who abused or neglected those children.
Repeat mistreatment up
The percentage of mistreated children who passed through the CYFD system and were then victimized again in a six-month period, as verified by CYFD, increased from 1.07 percent in spring 2012 to 9.3 percent in July-September 2013 and 8.7 percent in October-December 2013.
The nearly tenfold increase in recurring reports of child abuse and neglect places the county rate at almost the overall level for the state, which stood at almost 7 percent in spring 2012 and reached 11 percent last winter.
Across the state, 36 percent of child victims of substantiated cases of maltreatment are abused or neglected more than once before they turn 18, according to a New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee report released Friday.
Accepted reports of child mistreatment in the county increased for the last three quarters of 2013, from 203 in April-June to 221 in July-September and 255 in October-December. That increase occurred largely before the Omaree Varela case in Albuquerque helped create greater awareness and reporting.
CYFD investigation rates
Almost three years ago, the local CYFD office was screening out, or not accepting, a little more than half of all reports of child abuse and neglect. In the last three months of 2013, CYFD accepted 255 out of 399 reports in the county, nearly two-thirds, for investigation.
“In order for a report to be screened in for investigation, you must be able to provide enough information about so that we might be able to find the child,” says the CYFD website. Helpful information includes parent and child name, address, school, work place and license plate number.
While reports of child abuse and neglect in the county were increasing in 2013, total CYFD investigations were mostly moving in the opposite direction: 234 in January-March, 220 in April-June, 127 in July-September and 173 in October-December.
CYFD averaged 213 investigations in the county over the four quarters of 2012, and peaked at 357 in July-September 2012.
“The amount of time to reach a disposition for an allegation, substantiated or unsubstantiated, has also risen significantly since 2009 from 55 to 85 days in 2012,” the LFC noted.
CYFD has faced a fair amount of worker turnover. Despite hiring a large number of workers in recent years, the vacancy rate for CYFD’s Protective Services Division was at 15 percent in January. That rate included 29 unfilled caseworker job positions, the Albuquerque Journal reported earlier this year.
Since late 2011, CYFD investigations in the county have substantiated, or verified, only a fifth of the nearly 1,500 alleged instances of child maltreatment.
For the 2012 fiscal year, the LFC found a similar proportion for the state. Of 32,930 referrals alleging maltreatment to CYFD, the screening and investigation process found 6,517 victims, or about one in five.
Kids in foster care
Relatively few reports of abuse and neglect in the county lead to children’s placement into foster care. As of Dec. 31, 2013, CYFD had 64 children from the county in care, after receiving 399 reports of mistreatment between October and December.
One year earlier, on Dec. 31, 2012, CYFD had 90 kids from the county in care.
The LFC report found that expanding home-visiting programs – and possibly implementing new ones – could be a more cost-effective way of reducing abuse rates than taking children out of abusive homes.
The LFC also stated it costs the state more than $21,000 annually for each of the abuse cases that result in a foster care placement. In contrast, the report found the cost for in-home intervention programs is roughly $3,700 per year.
After children have been removed from a home, CYFD cannot tell parents they must complete court-ordered services, such as therapy or substance abuse, before reunification can take place, according to CYFD spokesman Henry Varela.
It is almost always judges, and not CYFD, who decide when parents can be trusted to no longer abuse or neglect their own children, Varela said.
Some parents may complete little of their required counseling or treatment, just enough to get their child back, Varela said. Other parents may follow all the steps outlined by the court, but then relapse into old habits after they are reunited with their child.
CYFD Secretary Yolanda Deines said Friday lawmakers should have approved proposed legislation during this year’s 30-day session that would have mandated that parents comply with counseling or treatment programs in cases of child abuse or neglect, the Albuquerque Journal reported Saturday.
The 13th Judicial District Court, whose jurisdiction includes the county, launched a pilot project last year for abuse and neglect cases. Social work interns help “provide for rehabilitation of the parent and swifter reunification of the family,” according to the 2013 annual report of the New Mexico judiciary.
Just over half of the local children in foster care in the last three months of 2013 had a permanency plan whose goal was reunification, as opposed to adoption or some other living arrangement.
Last summer, the Observer reported Court Programs Liaison Dominica Montaño was running that program and selecting a team of unpaid interns, who would work 16 hours a week.
Montaño said in August she wanted to minimize the time that children spend in foster care, after CYFD removes them from a situation of abuse or neglect. She said children in the foster care system suffer from stress, do poorly in school and decline in mental and physical health.
In a phone interview Friday, Montaño said the program has about 30 open cases. Her team has closed five cases since last summer, with reunification happening for one family. Her case-management approach, which works to ensure proper treatment for parents, should ultimately reduce recidivism.
CYFD can request a 48-hour hold from law enforcement, when it receives a report of child abuse or neglect, to place a child in protective custody, Varela said. CYFD can keep the child in foster care only if a court accepts the evidence of maltreatment.
CYFD is always recruiting foster parents and holds regular training sessions around the state, Varela said.
The quarterly reports from CYFD do not indicate what proportion, if any, of child abuse and neglect happens in foster homes. The aggregate statistics are not broken out by type of living arrangement.
(Reporting from the Albuquerque Journal contributed to this story.)