It takes a lot to put a kid in CYFD custody, say former employees. Initially, CYFD tries to find ways to safely keep the children in the home and preserve the family.
“Sometimes that means by the time that child actually gets picked up (by the state), additional trauma has happened to them,” said one former placement worker.
In the latest CYFD performance report, the incidence of “repeat maltreatment” of children who remained in the home climbed from 7 percent in fiscal year 2013 to more than 12 percent from July to September 2016, with more than 87 percent not re-abused within 6 months.
“Highly effective child welfare systems should reduce repeat maltreatment, but New Mexico continues to report increasing rates,” according to a report by the state Legislative Finance Committee.
The LFC attributed the rates in part to high staff caseloads and high turnover rates among child protective services workers. Last fall turnover was about 20 percent, but that was reduced from 29 percent earlier in the year.
Child welfare advocates, legislators and CYFD officials say the long-term key to keeping kids safe at home and reducing the need for foster care is prevention.
“There’s so much work we need to do,” CYFD Secretary Monique Jacobson acknowledged, but, she added, “There’s no simple silver bullet fix.”
She said her agency has been rolling out programs to engage families that are at risk for child abuse or neglect, including opening family support centers, relaxing eligibility for child care assistance and offering more intense home visiting.
Yet, the LFC in a recent budget document cited the repeat maltreatment trend, contending “CYFD dedicated little resources for prevention.”
“Substance abuse support and behavioral health needs remain some of the most significant barriers to improving family outcomes,” stated the LFC.
Jacobson said her agency is “really shoring up our core functions and looking at our training (of social workers and investigators).”
Her flagship initiative, an advertising campaign called “PullTogether,” has drawn mixed reviews since its rollout in May.
Jacobson, whose background is in corporate marketing, defended the campaign as a tool to inform New Mexicans about foster care, child abuse, child care assistance and other programs. Its website can be found at www.pulltogether.org.
The advertising contract to create “PullTogether” cost nearly $3 million, and state records show CYFD is paying nearly $70,000 a year for a program administrator.
Critics say the money could have been used for more direct services or retention bonuses to combat staff turnover.
“We’ve seen the research and efficacy claims of social marketing programs, like PullTogether,” said Miles Conway, spokesman for AFSCME Council 18, which represents CYFD workers. “Our union’s position is that CYFD needs to improve core, fundamental services before we can go put icing on any cakes.”
“I’m appalled at what we spent (for the advertising contract),” said Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque. “Because for the same amount of money you could buy a house and have it all fixed up and have a 24-hour staff there so you wouldn’t be placing children in (CYFD) offices.”
Tara Ford, co-founder of the Albuquerque-based Pegasus Legal Services for Children, said the PullTogether initiative should involve other state agencies, like the state Human Services Department, which oversees federal Medicaid funds that could be leveraged by CYFD.
HSD needs to be accountable “for providing the needed mental health services, particularly to at-risk youth and kids who are coming into custody. And preferably before they come into custody,” Ford said.
So far, PullTogether has focused on getting the community involved in helping children in New Mexico, such as donating backpacks for foster children.
Jacobson said there are plans to include various state agencies, including HSD and Cultural Affairs, in the PullTogether effort.