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FIRST IN A SERIES
Series by Colleen Heild Photo Illustration by Jaime Dispenza Of the Journal
They are beaten, burned and raped. Or they are left alone to drown in the bathtub or to eat crack cocaine. They arrive at hospital emergency rooms near death -- unconscious and barely breathing.
Children who can't protect themselves are being neglected and harmed daily in New Mexico homes.
And all too often the state agency that's supposed to protect kids instead allows them to remain with potentially dangerous parents or sends them to foster homes where they are abused again.
In 1995, New Mexico ranked 6th in the nation for child abuse with 8,842 children confirmed as abused or neglected, according to the state Children, Youth and Families Department. Forty-eight of the perpetrators were foster parents whom CYFD was supposed to monitor, according to a federal report.
CYFD Secretary Heather Wilson acknowledges there have been problems, but says: "It's not a crisis."
"Child Protective Services in New Mexico has improved significantly in the last 15 years and there are ways we can continue to improve it," Wilson said.
But over the past year, the department has come under increasing attack from children's advocates, prosecutors, children's lawyers, judges and its own foster parents.
An investigation by the Journal found serious problems in the state's $70 million Protective Services system:
* The state has paid more than $4 million since 1990 to settle lawsuits alleging abuse of children in state-licensed foster care. In one case, a 5-year-old whose life had been threatened was removed to foster care where she was repeatedly molested by a man with a history of sexual misconduct. In another, a 14-year-old girl became pregnant by her foster father who allegedly used her as a "surrogate wife." Most of the lawsuits claimed inadequate monitoring of foster homes and lax screening of foster families.
* More than 160 foster parents over the past five years have been reported by the state as having abused or neglected children in their care. According to a police report, one foster parent now in prison for molesting three foster sons helped train foster parents for the state.
* In 1995, the most recent year for which data is available, complaints of child abuse and neglect in New Mexico reached an all-time high of 28,000 -- yet the agency removed fewer children from their biological homes. In some cases, Child Protective Services workers received up to 10 abuse or neglect reports before taking custody. Some critics say there's little use reporting abuse because of CYFD's response.
* The state has trouble hiring and keeping social workers and foster parents -- the front-line soldiers in the battle against child abuse. The result: a shortage of foster homes, inexperienced foster parents and social workers, and higher caseloads for social workers. At times, the state is placing children in foster homes already at capacity.
* CYFD has detoured around laws aimed at promoting accountability and public involvement. CYFD also is accused of trying to quell its critics, some of whom are foster parents, citizen review boards and lawyers for abused and neglected children.
* In holding the line on government growth, CYFD in the first two years of Gov. Gary Johnson's administration opted against seeking budget increases for new social workers despite growing numbers of abuse and neglect cases.
"The people who have been in charge of the agency, except for brief periods of time, have never really believed they had to do better for children," said Marcia Lowry, a New York attorney representing foster children in a 16-year-old class-action case against CYFD.
"All they've tried to do is defend their actions or hide what they're doing."
Wilson takes exception to the criticism.
"I may sound a little defensive, but the (accusations) about not putting kids first and not caring, I don't find it here and it certainly isn't in this office."
Wilson says her staff is tightening the safety net for children by enacting new policies and seeking funding for 61 new social workers.
Nevertheless, Wilson added, "We have to accept the fact that children will die. We will never be able to predict human behavior."
"There are too many bad decisions being made by Child Protective Services."
A NEW MEXICO JUDGE
The year was 1983, although it could very well have been 1996.
A 10-month-old baby in state custody was beaten to death by her mother. The state's Child Protective Services was supposed to be monitoring the home because of prior suspected child abuse.
The resulting three-month Bernalillo County grand jury inquiry turned up other cases where the state had made mistakes, leading to injury of children. But no indictments were rendered after top officials of CYFD's predecessor agency, the state Human Services Department, promised to correct problems.
Fast forward to 1996, when a Bernalillo County grand jury took the unprecedented step of indicting two social workers after a 3-year-old ended up beaten and sodomized in a foster home they had concluded was safe. Charges were dropped Dec. 31 when CYFD agreed to change some of its practices.
Slip-ups in New Mexico's Child Protective Services system can't help but occur with 1,600 children in foster care and 28,000 child abuse and neglect reports to investigate each year.
But there's a point at which mistakes by social workers can signal serious deficiencies in the system overall, child welfare experts say.
Some would say New Mexico has reached that point -- at least several times -- over the past 15 years.
"There are too many bad decisions being made by Child Protective Services," said one New Mexico judge who didn't want to be named.
The judge said he's been outraged at the "ghastly screw-ups" the agency has made.
"We are not getting the kind of people, and not giving them the right training and support. And we need to, or this is going to keep happening."
CYFD was created in 1992 to place more emphasis on children and their families. The agency administers juvenile corrections, day care, foster care and a variety of other programs.
Its Child Protective Services division is responsible for investigating complaints of child abuse and neglect and for deciding whether to remove a child in imminent danger.
That division also oversees the state foster care system, where the most seriously abused or neglected children are placed.
Investigations of abuse and neglect and all foster care records are confidential under laws designed to protect abused children and their families.
But recent lawsuits have shed some light on CYFD problems.
Earlier this month, a federal court monitor recommended the state be held in contempt for noncompliance with a 1983 consent decree that mandated services for children in state foster care and reduced social worker caseloads.
High caseloads strain the system, experts say, leading to inadequate monitoring of children in state custody and ultimately abuse.
The lead attorney in the case, Lowry, of Children's Rights Inc., said her New York-based organization is involved in similar legal actions in 10 other states.
"New Mexico has been our most frustrating because it is one of our oldest (cases) and because it has a relatively small population compared to other places that we litigate and yet it still has not made substantial improvement."
"I think we had 24 (tort claims) last year, out of 28,000 complaints investigated. I think we're doing pretty good."
Wilson credits the class-action lawsuit as leading to important improvements in the foster care system, but said the decree is now an "albatross."
She contends the department will be forced to spend substantial funds on attorney fees when the money could have been spent on children.
Meanwhile, the state has paid more than $4 million over the past five years on lawsuits which alleged CYFD's lack of monitoring and screening of foster parents led to abuse of children in foster care.
The multimillion-dollar payout in recent years prompted state Risk Management officials to increase CYFD's civil rights insurance premium from $400,000 to $2 million a year, risk management documents show.
The number of lawsuits has more than doubled in recent years -- a fact Wilson and others attribute to lawyers hungry to make a buck.
A half-dozen cases are pending. And the state's been put on notice that at least 24 more lawsuits could be filed.
Risk Management director Taylor Hendrickson says CYFD has become a new target for the legal community.
Wilson said the consent decree ruling and the civil damage lawsuits all relate to events that occurred in prior administrations.
"If you actually look at the number of tort claims filed against the department, I think we had 24 last year, out of 28,000 complaints investigated. I think we're doing pretty good," she said.
Lawyers say they expect about a dozen lawsuits to be filed alleging foster care abuse that occurred during Wilson's watch.
Deborah Hartz, director of Protective Services Division, said the agency no longer readily agrees to settle such cases. She also said a risk management specialist was hired four months ago, and the agency has established better communication with risk management officials.
Meanwhile, Wilson said she is confident she will receive much of the $2 million in new funds requested from the 1997 Legislature to hire more social workers.
The vast majority of the new hires would go to two new CYFD programs aimed at strengthening investigations of child abuse and neglect.
Critics say the reforms are a start, but chide Wilson's administration for not seeking more resources earlier.
"For many children, it's too little and too late," said Peter Cubra, president of Advocacy Inc., whose attorneys represent abused and neglected children in court.
"The people of New Mexico are going to have to shell out more money in damage awards for the killed and brutally injured children than they would have spent for adequate care."
"The failure to take care of abused children is a major cause of our skyrocketing prison population."
Since Gov. Gary Johnson took office, juvenile justice has been at the top of CYFD budget priorities.
There's the irony, say child welfare experts.
New Mexico's prisons are packed with men and women who were abused as children -- an estimated 85 percent of the prison population.
"The failure to take care of abused children is a major cause of our skyrocketing prison population," Cubra said.
Children, Youth and Families estimates that 34 percent of minors in New Mexico juvenile detention facilities were abused or neglected. An estimated 10 percent had been in foster care.
Take the case of Javier, a 17-year-old cited in one recent pleading filed in the consent decree case.
The state took custody of the boy when he was 6. Since then, he has had 37 foster care or other out-of-home placements. Now the state Department of Corrections is his legal custodian -- Javier in August 1995 was sentenced to 25 years in prison for second-degree murder.
Some abused or neglected girls in state custody have followed the path of Monica, a 16-year-old cited in recent federal court documents.
She was removed from her biological family 10 years ago due to sexual abuse, and had 17 foster placements. By the fall of 1995, she was pregnant and classified as a runaway. Her whereabouts are unknown.
Or take the case of Mike, an 11-year-old who was in six state-licensed homes in the span of four months.
Physically abused at home, Mike has a serious mental disability. He was removed from his biological home, placed in All Faiths Receiving Home, then into a foster home.
The foster home was full, but he was placed there because all others were at capacity.
Two bigger, older boys with serious mental disabilities lived in the house. Before Mike moved in, the older of the two had systematically been beating up the younger.
The older boy soon set his sights on Mike, and bloodied him so severely that a social worker removed him from the foster home.
Mike was relocated to a runaway shelter for teen-agers, although he was only 11. He had been housed in a psychiatric facility weeks earlier and was incapable of taking care of himself at a runaway shelter.
Then the boy was moved to a residential treatment facility, but was removed after he started getting beaten up.
He was moved again, to another residential treatment facility in Albuquerque, which the state ended up closing because the top administrator lacked adequate credentials.
The children placed there, including Mike, had no transition plan and no proper place to go, Cubra said. Mike is now in another foster home.
"The state knew about the fake credentials for months," Cubra said. "So those kids were thrown from the frying pan into the fire. All that trauma was completely unnecessary."
CYFD says foster children are bounced from home to home less often than in prior years, but sometimes it can't be avoided.
But Mike now has a detachment disorder, which develops when highly traumatized children are bumped from place to place, Cubra said. When that occurs, they lose much of their ability to make healthy attachments.
"CYFD has taught Mike you can't trust the world," Cubra said. "That he may be jerked out of his home at any instance. He's never going to be able to trust the world the way developing children need to. He knows the truth, that he's not safe and his future is beyond his control. He can't trust anybody because nobody's been trustworthy."
Copyright © 1997 Albuquerque Journal