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CYFD secretary praises advocates for children

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Protecting New Mexico’s children is not something that can be accomplished solely by the Children, Youth and Families Department, said CYFD Cabinet Secretary Monique Jacobson.

“No family can do it alone, no agency can do it alone, no nonprofit can do it alone, no church can do it alone. We all have to pull together,” she told a cross section of business and community leaders, about 50 people in all, who attended the first New Mexico Kids Matter Informational Breakfast on Tuesday.

New Mexico Kids Matter is the nonprofit that operates the CASA program – Court Appointed Special Advocates – and trains the volunteers who represent kids placed in state custody and speak in their best interests before the courts and schools, and in the community.

Audience members were asked to support New Mexico Kids Matter by becoming a CASA volunteer or making a financial or other donation.

Last year, about 39,000 calls regarding neglect and abuse of children were reported to CYFD’s Statewide Central Intake, which screened about 20,000 of them for investigation to determine if incidents could be substantiated.

“In instances of a child’s immediate safety risk, they come into our custody,” Jacobson said. “At any given time, we have about 2,600 kids in our custody. They are our kids. They literally belong to the state of New Mexico and they need the support of our staff and of the CASAs.”

A children’s court judge makes the determination if a child should remain in the custody of the state and it’s the judge who appoints a trained CASA volunteer to a child’s case. The CASA volunteer “assures that all services ordered by the court are provided,” regardless of whether the child is placed in foster care, a group home, a residential treatment center or a juvenile detention center, said Veronica Montaño-Pilch, executive director of New Mexico Kids Matter.

CASA volunteers work solely with kids in Bernalillo County, who make up the majority of kids in state custody, Montaño-Pilch said.

CASA is part of a national organization with 950 programs around the country. The local program previously was called Albuquerque CASA and was run by the Children’s Court, Montaño-Pilch said. Three years ago, the local program’s board of directors took over its operation under the umbrella name New Mexico Kids Matter.

Children matched with CASA volunteers, she said, spend less time in long-term foster care, demonstrate better educational performance, tend to receive more court-ordered services and have a far better record of not re-entering the child welfare system.

In addition, the intervention and oversight provided by CASA volunteers save the state millions of dollars in child welfare costs because matched children spend 25 percent less time in long-term foster care since they are reunited with their parents or find adoptive homes faster.

New Mexico Kids Matter has an annual budget of $350,000, which comes from state, county and federal funds, grants from United Way and the Albuquerque Community Foundation, and private donations.