ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – A new Legislative Finance Committee report finds repeat cases of abuse or neglect of children in New Mexico are among the worst in the nation. It finds more than 40% of children who sustained a serious injury had involvement with CYFD in the previous 12 months. The report also finds notable maltreatment of children in foster care.

Additionally, it reveals that 14% of kids were victims of maltreatment who had also been victims of another maltreatment instance within the same year. The national average is 8%. According to the LFC report, New Mexico consistently ranks in the top six states worst in the nation for repeat abuse of kids.

“I think there are many questions on why the repeat maltreatment occurs,” said Republican State Senator Gay Kernan, who represents parts of Lea, Eddy, and Chaves Counties.

Senator Kernan is a member of the LFC and is on the CYFD Steering Committee, which is putting together a report on ways to improve the department. “I know there are many good people working in CYFD that are doing a very difficult job, so not to take away from that. But we do have to figure out a way to improve services,” she said.

The LFC report does show plenty of green, showing good ratings on different issues. But, the report notes that could be because targets have been lowered or are ‘undemanding.’ Senator Kernan said CYFD faces pressure to get kids back to their families quickly, but she’s questioning that policy.

“The concern is that sometimes the decisions that are made from a local perspective to return children to their families, I think many times, I don’t understand why those children are being returned because I think it has created a problem with the children in regard to their safety,” she said. “I know it must be difficult to separate children from their families and from their siblings, but the number one goal has got to be: are we putting them into a safe environment and one that we can count on to make sure those children are not harmed a second and third time?”

Senator Kernan also believes legislative changes need to happen to make CYFD more transparent. “CYFD, for many reasons, must have some confidentiality, but we can’t go so far that people of New Mexico don’t really know what’s going on and how changes are being made,” she said.

CYFD has said high turnover and extreme workloads have led to burnout and less experienced workers being pushed into the job too quickly. With the LFC report, Steering Committee, and Kevin Settlement, she’s pleased with the number of resources looking into improving the department.

“We have a lot of material. We have an opportunity to really make a difference, but culture change is hard. But I think we have the right person at the head of this in the secretary,” she said. CYFD Barbara Vigil has pledged to overhaul the department, which includes creating new teams to review child deaths and joining a national team to develop better decision-making strategies.

“It’s going to take a lot of work from the bottom up and the bottom down to reach a solution,” said Senator Kernan. According to the LFC report, the legislature increased appropriations to CYFD’s protective services by 8% and to its behavioral health services program by 21%.

In response to the report finding low performance in repeat maltreatment of children, a CYFD spokesperson emailed this statement to KRQE:

“Repeat maltreatment includes both abuse and neglect, with most repeat maltreatment cases being neglect. Examples of neglect are associated with difficult-to-resolve social issues like housing and lack of medical and behavioral health resources. Neglect is the most likely type of maltreatment to “repeat,” as these issues take significant time and effort to address.

One of the Department’s key goals is to reduce, and, ultimately, eliminate all forms of repeat maltreatment. We are attacking this problem by focusing on two main areas—strengthening our workforce and rebuilding a behavioral health system of care. Both take time and investment. The Department is strengthening its workforce by addressing retention and recruitment of employees. We are rebuilding our behavioral health system to include evidence-based programs, such as High Fidelity Wraparound, Mobile Crisis Response, and more, in communities across the state.

We are confident that our work will continue to demonstrate meaningful progress towards improving the lives of children and families in New Mexico.”

-CYFD Spokesperson

In response to the report indicating green ratings may be because targets were lowered or undemanding, the spokesperson said in a statement:

“Performance measures for the Children, Youth, and Families Department are established annually with the Legislature. We are encouraged that the Department has met or exceeded the majority of measures. For example, we dramatically exceeded the target for family and kinship placements. We are disappointed that the Report does not acknowledge the Department’s overall progress.

These targets were set two years ago—a year before beginning data collection for the Report. Some revisions to the targets may always be necessary as data is captured and to incorporate ongoing quality improvement. The intent is to set appropriate targets for an agency’s performance. 

In conjunction with the LFC, the Department will continue to make adjustments to establish appropriate targets. The Department’s success on these measures demonstrates its effective use of public funding, as well as its commitment to improvement.”

-CYFD Spokesperson