Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Children removed from their homes as a result of abuse or neglect too often spend their first hours away from home waiting in offices, eating fast food, or sleeping on makeshift beds while state officials search for an available foster home.
Children traumatized by abuse at home often find themselves in a “spooky” office building that lacks showers, proper bedding and other comforts, said Sarah Palmer, a foster-parent coordinator for the Children, Youth and Families Department in Bernalillo County.
“The kids are afraid,” Palmer said at the CYFD intake office in Albuquerque. “You’ve just lost everything – your parents, your toys, your dog, your next-door neighbors. The building isn’t that friendly. It’s spooky, and you’ve got a stranger saying, ‘It’s going to be OK, honey.’ ”
To remedy that, CYFD leaders propose buying or leasing facilities in Bernalillo County to house a Child Wellness Center that would provide a homelike space for traumatized children during their first 48 hours in state custody.
The center would also allow CYFD to consolidate office sites now scattered around the county and provide space for other agencies and nonprofits that provide services for children, such as PB&J Family Services and University of New Mexico Hospital, CYFD Secretary Monique Jacobson said.
If the child comes into custody late at night and a foster home can’t be found quickly, “there are instances where that child would end up sleeping in our office that night,” Jacobson said. “We all agree that should never happen. But the fact of the matter is, it does happen.”
CYFD’s plan to pay $10 million for the SunPort Corporate Center in Southeast Albuquerque to house a Child Wellness Center stalled recently after the Journal reported that the property sold last spring to the current owners for only $1.5 million.
The administration of Gov. Susana Martinez told lawmakers recently that it had stepped back from plans to buy the largely vacant office complex from its California owner, Orton Development.
The administration said it was unaware of the previous $1.5 million sales price.
Jacobson said CYFD still needs space for a Child Wellness Center somewhere in Bernalillo County, whether the state elects to buy or lease a building.
CYFD is working with the state General Services Department to seek proposals from property owners interested in leasing space for the center, but it has not ruled out the possibility of buying a building, Jacobson said.
The agency would need authority from legislators to purchase property, she said. CYFD plans to ask lawmakers for a $5 million appropriation next year to relocate staff to the Child Wellness Center.
A space for families and children in crisis
The need for the center is greatest in Bernalillo County, where CYFD has responsibility for 900 of the estimated 2,000 children statewide in CYFD custody.
The Albuquerque office, where many of those children now enter CYFD custody, contains a maze of narrow hallways, cramped offices and a conference room poorly suited to serve hundreds of families and children in crisis.
The emotional temperature rises just inside the front door in a U-shaped waiting room, just 24-by-16 feet, where nervous parents wait for brief, supervised visits with their children. At least 100 people a day enter here, including some with mental illness and substance abuse problems.
Most parents with children in CYFD custody are working on reunification plans that include supervised visitation with their children.
Inside a small, noisy conference room on a recent morning, a dozen families carved out small areas to reunite with their kids for an hour or two as CYFD personnel looked on.
The congestion sometimes causes conflict between families, said Michelle Garcia, a client service agent who supervises the meetings.
“People get angry because someone is in their space or it’s too loud,” Garcia said.
Parents who bring food must use a microwave in another room, and mothers with infants have no place to change diapers, she said.
Throughout the building, offices are jammed with items intended to make life a bit more comfortable for children, such as toys, blankets and inflatable beds and sleeping bags. The office frequently serves children with lice, scabies and filthy hygiene.
“We de-louse the kids in the bathroom sinks,” said Palmer, who produced a box labeled “louse kit #1” containing special shampoo, razors, aprons and other items she uses to treat children infested with the parasitic insects. Children sit on a hard plastic chair during the procedure.
“We play beauty salon with the kids,” she said.
The facility has two concrete-lined play areas that appear cluttered and uninviting. Because the office lacks showers, “older children kind of do a quick sponge bath” in a sink, Palmer said.
“I have soaps and body wash. I try to bring old towels from home so we have something here,” she said.
A place to recover
Children are typically removed from their homes by police officers, who then hand them over to CYFD officials, often at night. The children typically want to return to their parents, even if they have been severely abused, Jacobson said.
“We have an incredible responsibility to the kids that are in our custody right now,” she said.
Any site chosen for the Child Wellness Center should include beds, showers and a medical triage facility to help children heal and “decompress” after a traumatic experience, Jacobson said. It should also offer comfortable places where children and their parents can meet in a quiet, confidential setting.
“How do we create space that is warm and is loving?” she said. “How can we feel like we are wrapping them in a warm hug during this horribly traumatic time, rather than having them in an office building?”
Child Wellness Center
CYFD has proposed a Child Wellness Center to care for Bernalillo County children who are victims of abuse or neglect. The center is intended to offer a home-like environment for children while CYFD personnel seek foster placement. It is also intended to provide space for parent-child visitations to help families fulfill reunification plans and provide emergency space for children in surrounding counties who need immediate shelter.
The proposed center would provide:
- Showers, washer and dryer, and a kitchen.
- Cribs and beds.
- A medical-triage room.
- A separate, secure entrance for staff and children.
- Family visitation rooms with separate entrances for parents and children, and age appropriate waiting areas.
- Indoor and outdoor space for seven to 10 families at a time, including play and picnic areas.
- A kitchen to allow families to cook for their children.