Is New Mexico Headed For A ‘Crisis’ Due To A Shortage Of Licensed Social Workers?

SANTA FE, NM (KRQE) – They are professionals working across New Mexico helping to treat mental health issues. They are the people behind the scenes who help connect families across the state. And they are professional stewards who help provide vulnerable local people with the support they need. They’re social workers, and according to the state’s Social Work Task Force, New Mexico could be heading for a social work crisis.

“Do we have enough social workers in New Mexico? The answer is no,” Eli Fresquez, a social worker and member of the social work review board, said during a legislative session on Monday. “We have many people who practice social work who shouldn’t be doing social work.”

Fresquez is one of several experts on the Social Work Task Force, which studies problems within the profession. On Monday, they issued a dire warning to some New Mexico lawmakers.

“We’re going to be in a crisis,” Eli Fresquez told lawmakers on the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee. But the good news: “We are not currently in a crisis. We can avert the crisis.”

There are several problems facing the state, Fresquez and his colleagues explained. According to Fresquez, not only is the profession facing a labor shortage in New Mexico, but some professionals currently practicing in “social work” positions are not properly certified.

Fresquez and colleagues provided data showing that the state Department of Children, Youth and Family (CYFD) has hundreds of social work positions filled by unlicensed social workers. Figures suggest that only about 21% of CYFD “social workers” are licensed.

Later in the day, lawmakers questioned CYFD Secretary Barbara Vigil about staffing and licensing. She responded by suggesting that due to staffing issues, unlicensed social workers sometimes had to step in to help handle social work across the state.

The Social Work Task Force also provided data suggesting that the CYFD is having a hard time retaining social workers. To fix the problems, the Social Work Task Force recommended focusing on increasing social worker salaries and investing in education.

“We need to be paid,” Fresquez said. “We need support”

In addition to the local issues highlighted by the task force, the social worker licensing process has recently come under national scrutiny. KRQE News 13 previously reported that there are wide racial disparities within the profession in New Mexico, and these types of disparities have led some to question the value of social worker licensing exams.

Although there are some major challenges within the profession, the Social Work Task Force noted that progress has been made to improve the industry. This of course includes funding the task force as well as passing the Social Work Practice Act years ago.

This law is designed to protect the public. It requires social workers to be licensed to call themselves social workers or to perform the tough but important job.