SANTA FE, NM (KRQE) – A few years ago, the New Mexico Department of Children, Youth and Family Affairs (CYFD) settled a lawsuit involving 13 children in foster care. Now the independent watchdogs for the comparison say the state gets a “failing grade.”
The lawsuit dates back to 2018. Back then, 13 kids joined forces with Disability Rights New Mexico and the Native American Disability Law Center to sue then-Governor Susana Martinez’s administration. Plaintiffs alleged that the state failed New Mexico foster youth by essentially refusing to provide care and failing to act in the children’s best interests.
In March 2020, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration settled the lawsuit. As part of the settlement, CYFD and the state are subject to surveillance reports by an independent panel of “co-neutrals” who act as watchdogs.
On Tuesday, some attorneys presented the co-neutral’s 2021 annual report to state legislators on the Health and Human Services Committee. The overall conclusion: the state has not made enough progress.
“This data is the unvarnished truth,” says Sara Crecca, an attorney with Crecca Law Firm and Pegasus Legal Services for Children. “After a detailed examination, the state failed the grade again.”
The agency only met performance standards for seven of the 16 fundamental objectives, Crecca points out. And the agency didn’t meet any of the earnings targets.
“The state’s progress to date has been a resounding failure when measured against the headline goals of the agreement,” said Sara Crecca, attorney at law firm Crecca and Pegasus Legal Services for Children. “Despite any other suggestions or points about other advances over the past month, these are the facts.”
The report details where CYFD and the state’s Health and Human Services Division (HSD) are falling short of their goals. For example, one of the goals was for CYFD and HSD to develop a trauma responsive training plan, ie training for all CYFD staff to ensure they understand how to care for traumatized youth.
According to the report, the state failed to meet that goal in 2021 because it took too long to approve a plan. A plan was approved in August this year, but the final syllabus has not yet been approved and it will be longer before staff receive this training.
Another shortcoming, according to the report, is that CYFD does not properly assess the needs of all children in the system.
As part of the comparison, CYFD will use an assessment (called the Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths Crisis Assessment Tool, or CAT) to find out exactly what children—particularly those in abusive situations—need.
However, the report shows that in a sample of children placed in care from December 1, 2021 to December 21, 2021, only 34% of the children were correctly assessed. And the state is supposed to share the results of these assessments with other care providers, but the report shows there was no documentation that these reports were properly shared.
How many children are affected? According to the report, there are around 3,000 children in foster care in New Mexico each year. As of December 2021, 45% of children in government care were under the age of seven.
Despite all the bad news, Crecca noted that there is hope: “Other states have been here and flipped their child welfare systems because they prioritize foster children,” says Crecca. “We are here to set off the fire alarm, so to speak. So that we as a community, as advocates, service providers, legislators, agency leaders, agency staff can all enforce this agreement and take all steps to make it a reality.”
Gary Housepian, the CEO of Disability Rights New Mexico, told lawmakers there had been some progress. “You’ve heard about kids being brought home, fewer kids being sent out of the state,” Housepian says. “However, progress is not fast enough.”
On Monday, CYFD Secretary Barbara Vigil briefed lawmakers on progress within the agency. “As government continues to make sustained improvements to our public child welfare system, it is important to recognize that the health and safety of our children and our families is a global responsibility. It’s everyone’s responsibility,” Vigil said. “We should avoid the tendency to blame one sector or another of our state, but be mindful and intentional in our dealings with one another in a spirit of support and cooperation.”
In addition, Vigil said the department is making changes and focusing on the commitments under the settlement. For example, CYFD told lawmakers that there are now over 500 staff trained to give youth appropriate evaluations. However, Vigil cautions that it will take some time for changes to be fully implemented, especially given issues such as staffing shortages.