Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
On Good Friday 2016, New Mexico child protective services workers were scrambling to find a temporary home for a troubled 12-year-old boy.
“Hello All, I have a kiddo in my office who we may need help watching in the office over the weekend as we are having a difficulty placing him,” social worker Frankie L. Trujillo wrote in an inner-office email entitled “Overtime opportunity.”
New Mexico Children, Youth and Family Department workers had already checked with one shelter for children in Farmington. “They said no because of his defiance,” wrote CPS supervisor Christina Nuanes in an email. “The other problem is he is refusing to go anywhere.”
“Surely we can convince him. It’s Easter!!!” another supervisor responded.
Even a veteran caseworker had no luck, replied Nuanes, adding, “This kiddo is soooo angry.”
For more than a year, children removed from their parents after being abused or neglected have ended up temporarily housed in CYFD offices in Albuquerque and Santa Fe while they wait for a new home. Some have such behavior problems, CYFD staff can’t find foster homes or even a youth shelter that will accept them.
Under the watch of employees who work overtime night shifts, children have had to sleep on couches or in sleeping bags. CYFD staffers, who by policy aren’t allowed to take the children home with them, have supplied fast food for their meals, taken their dirty clothes home to wash, and relied on an employee’s gym membership so children get showers.
“We hope our skill level allows us to get them fed, get them stable enough so they can sleep, and then we figure out the next day,” said one former placement worker. “We do have our moments of where we just have the feeling we don’t have the skill level. But we have to do something.”
Some CYFD employees have voiced concerns about their safety in the office and the safety of children in their temporary care.
“It’s a ticking time bomb,” said one former employee.
Since 2011, the number of abused or neglected children taken into state care in New Mexico has soared by more than 50 percent, with about 2,600 now in state custody, according to CYFD data and interviews.
The state has shored up the number of foster homes by 20 percent since early 2015, but still can’t keep up with demand.
CYFD Secretary Monique Jacobson said last week her agency is trying to minimize the chances of a child ending up stuck in a CYFD office.
Efforts are underway to increase the safety of protective services staff, improve child placements at area shelters, and make CYFD offices more hospitable for children in the hours after they’ve been removed from their families.
“No child should be staying in an office building,” Jacobson told the Journal . “But I can’t tell you with confidence that we will always be able to find a placement for a child before the sun sets.”
The problem isn’t unique to New Mexico.
In Texas, child protective services last fall started using armed security guards to help watch over foster children temporarily housed in state offices. The states of Georgia and South Carolina both entered into court settlements last year in part to curb or eliminate the practice of housing children in hotels and government offices.
“These are children who the state has determined there are sufficient circumstances to remove them or pull them out of a home,” said Ira Lustbader, the litigation director for Children’s Rights, a New York nonprofit involved in the lawsuits in Georgia and South Carolina. “So what they need most is support and stability and housing that can meet their needs.”
Temporarily housing children in government offices and private shelters, he added, “is typically a symptom of a deeper problem. And obviously it’s the state’s obligation to get underneath it and address it.”
Overnight at CYFD
In Albuquerque, beds for children aren’t allowed in the CYFD offices because of state fire code. Cots that were brought in ended up getting stolen. That’s why children end up sleeping on couches or in sleeping bags. Some have stayed for days, especially if they were older and harder to place.
CYFD officials last week didn’t readily have totals on the number of children housed in offices each month. So far, there have been no reports of serious injuries or harm to any children or state workers.
But life in the office hasn’t been easy. Some children have become violent or tried to escape. One day, a boy in custody managed to crawl up to the roof of the two-story CYFD office on Lamberton NE, all the while laughing at those trying to coax him down.
A 17-year-old youth in early December apparently had free run of an area of the Lamberton CYFD office and was suspected of stealing a social worker’s wallet off her desk, according to an Albuquerque police report. The wallet was never found.
CYFD officials say they have created an after-hours unit and reduced overtime costs for child protective services over the past few years by $200,000. But the overtime cost last year was still $1.7 million.
CYFD boss Jacobson said her agency has made strides in hiring and is enhancing staff training. To address safety, workers will wear devices to call 911 in case of emergency in the office. And when children spend the night, usually two employees will watch them.
Efforts are also underway to secure legislative approval for a waiver that would allow CYFD to renew its San Mateo office in Albuquerque and create an area where beds for children would be permitted, Jacobson said. In November, a five-year lease renewal at the Lamberton office called for the installation of a washer and shower at no extra charge to the state, she added.
Jacobson said CYFD also hopes to maximize use of emergency shelters, but she recognizes that some children have “higher needs” that would preclude that.
For instance, one CYFD email obtained by the Journal asked for volunteers to watch a 9-year-old “with sexual acting out.”
Steve Johnson, who runs New Day Safe House in Albuquerque, says his shelter provides up to 90 days’ housing for CYFD’s abused and neglected youths, “but I have to be careful of the security and safety of my staff and security and the welfare of the young people living with me.”
Some of those who end up in CYFD offices have “been with us multiple times and have failed,” he said.
“To me, this is more of a systemic issue. It’s not like it’s anybody’s fault,” Johnson said. “CYFD’s doing their job. We’re doing our job. And we’re all jammed up. We’re struggling with a system that doesn’t have a place for these young people. This overall system across the state is under a lot of stress.”
Young child victims
A Legislative Finance Committee evaluation in 2014 concluded that 36 percent of children who are the victim of maltreatment substantiated by CYFD and remain in the home will be abused or neglected again before they are 18.
The largest segment of child victims in New Mexico in fiscal year 2015 – some 1,193 children – were less than 1 year old, according to federal data. The second biggest group: those age 6.
Just last October, Albuquerque police responded at about 5:30 p.m. to the Lamberton CYFD office, where a6-year-old boy was “inside a vehicle acting out.”
The child was “yelling, biting, punching and kicking CYFD staff and his foster mother,” a police report stated. The boy had his first visit with his biological mother and when the visit ended “he began behaving poorly.”
Twice he tried to run away but was caught by private security and then police. CYFD staff called for an ambulance to take him to University Hospital for an evaluation. “While in the ambulance (the boy) was screaming at, kicking, yelling at, and punching ambulance personnel,” police reported.
The LFC recently concluded that CYFD costs are increasing for care and support of children in the state’s custody. That is a “result of continued increases in the caseload and the cost of serving younger children and more complex cases,” according to a report released earlier this month.
Children taken into custody increasingly require specialized care, resulting in a higher cost per child in foster care. Children in specialized foster care generally have higher needs, present increased behavioral health challenges, and have increased physical health problems, the LFC reported.
“We (society) are just doing more damage to our kids,” said a former CYFD placement worker. “It isn’t just the dirty home where a mother got mad and spanked them. These days it’s beating them with a 2 x 4 or hitting them over the head. Or throwing them out of the house. It isn’t what used to count as abuse. It’s a lot of awful terrible things that happen.”