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Governor supports CYFD caseworker bills

With a row of Children, Youth and Families Department caseworkers behind her, Gov. Susana Martinez on Wednesday threw her support behind two pieces of proposed legislation designed to retain social workers and make them safer in the field.

The announcement came during a news conference at a CYFD office building in Albuquerque, where Martinez was joined by CYFD Secretary Monique Jacobson.

House Bill 341, sponsored by Rep. Jimmie Hall, R-Albuquerque, is intended to establish a school loan repayment program for eligible CYFD caseworkers, while House Bill 506, introduced by Rep. Doreen Gallegos, D-Las Cruces, makes assault and battery on a CYFD caseworker its own specific crime and carries stiffer penalties.

HB 341 has been reviewed and passed through its committees. It is expected to be heard by the full House this week. HB 506 remains in committee, although Martinez said she was hopeful both will quickly be approved by the House and get sent on to the Senate.

The state Legislature has approved $600,000 – less than the $1 million Martinez requested – that will go toward the loan repayment program.

“We want to keep you. We don’t want to just train you and have you go away. We don’t want to lose you to another agency,” Martinez told the caseworkers assembled behind her. “That’s why I support the establishment of a loan repayment program for eligible caseworkers, to attract more professionals with degrees in criminal justice, sociology or psychology, and increase the number of qualified professionals looking to go into this type of work.”

The $600,000, Jacobson said, could help defray outstanding school loans for 300 to 400 caseworkers this year.

The program would go a long way toward reducing high CYFD caseworker turnover and vacancies, and result in reduced case loads, Martinez said.

Other monetary incentives already implemented for caseworkers include a 4 percent increase in base pay during fiscal year 2014 and an additional 3 percent in the current fiscal year’s budget. In 2013, CYFD investigators got a pay boost. Martinez also approved a 3 percent upward adjustment for all minimum starting salaries for newly hired caseworkers, as well as higher pay to qualified applicants who are willing to serve as caseworkers in rural communities.

HB 506 would make it a fourth-degree felony to assault or batter a CYFD caseworker.

Under current law, “it is a felony to commit assault or battery on paramedics, school employees, and sports officials like referees and umpires,” Martinez noted. No such protection is afforded to caseworkers.

When police officers go to a person’s home, sometimes in the middle of the night or in the early morning hours, the governor said, they wear a uniform and a badge, carry a gun, a Taser and a radio to call for backup, and they have training in defensive tactics.

Caseworkers, who also respond to calls in the middle of the night, are armed only with a clipboard and a pen, she said.

The new penalties for assault and battery send the message “do not touch our social workers, they do very important work.”