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Prevention vital to improving children’s home lives

A headline about another child being injured by adults arouses anger and indignation. Further details likely reveal that the family struggles with substance abuse, domestic violence, prior protective services involvement and arrests and has pending criminal court proceedings.

But beyond the news cycle, our community is generally unaware of the rest of the story involving the children and parents.

New Mexico law emphasizes the importance of preserving the unity of the family whenever possible but directs that a child’s health and safety “shall be the paramount concern.”

When a family in crisis first comes to the attention of the Children, Youth and Families Department, protective efforts are initiated to prevent a child’s removal from the family home.

If the child’s health and safety continue to be compromised, the next step is removal from the family, placement in foster care and court-ordered temporary custody by the state of New Mexico.

Procedures set out in federal law and state law dictate further proceedings in Children’s Court along a strict timeline. Within 12 months of a child entering foster care, the plan must be to reunify the child with her family or to order an alternative for permanency such as adoption.

The Children’s Court Division at the Second Judicial District Court devotes the vast majority of its time and resources to managing neglect and abuse cases.

Not later than 10 days following the initiation of a legal case by CYFD, the court conducts an initial custody hearing to determine if children will remain in out-of-home care pending civil proceedings on the allegations.

Next, a formal trial takes place to adjudicate whether the children are abused or neglected as defined by the New Mexico’s Children’s Code. The children are represented by a guardian ad litem who is an attorney.

Parents, if indigent, are each represented by court-appointed counsel. Every proceeding includes the children’s attorneys, the CYFD attorney, the parents’ attorneys and attorneys for any additional caregivers alleged to have neglected or abused a child.

When children are determined to have been abused or neglected, services for the family are ordered by the court.

A service plan is developed to remedy the causes of the children’s removal and to ultimately reunify the family. Frequent hearings are convened over the next 12 months for the court to monitor the children’s welfare, to review the efforts by CYFD and the parents and to adjust the causes of maltreatment.

If efforts by CYFD and the parents to rehabilitate and maintain the family are unsuccessful, the court must make the critical legal decision to provide permanent alternative care for the child victims.

If the parents have engaged in services, successfully modified their behaviors and made progress toward ensuring the health and safety of their children, the families are reunified and the case is ultimately dismissed.

If the opposite occurs, legal procedures for terminating parental rights are undertaken to provide permanency for the children through adoption.

However, if a youth in foster care who is 14 years of age or older opposes adoption, she will remain in out-of-home care until the age of 18, when she is discharged from foster care and the case is dismissed.

CYFD-licensed foster parents provide temporary care for children in state custody. They are the 24/7 substitute parents who get the children ready for school, attend to pending medical issues and transport the youngsters to numerous counseling and therapy appointments. Foster parents respond to the children’s night terrors and manage the negative behaviors triggered by chronic trauma and neglect.

Foster parents are to love the children as their own but simultaneously prepare and encourage them for a return to their parents.

Unfortunately, since the number of children in CYFD custody has steadily increased over the past few years, many foster families have an inordinate number of children in their care. Saturation of local foster homes necessitates placement of some of our county’s children with families in the far reaches of our geographically expansive state.

Additional key components of the child protection system include Court Appointed Special Advocates, CYFD investigators and permanency workers and community service providers.

Sadly, these multiple participants are engaged in addressing the harm after it occurs. Prevention efforts would reduce the need for the extensive yet inadequate resources expended in the child welfare system.

Judge John J. Romero Jr. is a judge of the 2nd Judicial District Court (Bernalillo County). He is presiding judge of the Children’s Court Division. Opinions expressed here are solely those of the judge individually and not those of the court.