NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – There are too many child abuse cases in New Mexico to count. Too many that are so horrendous, New Mexicans are left wondering how someone could do that do a child and what is being done to stop it. It’s a question the public has been asking of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) for a long time.
With the latest death of James Dunklee in December, it’s being asked again. We continue our series by looking at the changes that are already underway at CYFD and a look at what many believe still needs to be done.
“We have had some of the worst crimes against children in New Mexico over the last decade. These are systemic(ally) related to poverty, relates to crime, relates to our communities being in disarray,” says Senator Michael Padilla (D) for Bernalillo County.
“What I found since I came in from the outside, is that not all of those processes were being used maximumly in order to hold us accountable,” says Brian Blalock, Secretary NM Children Youth & Families Dept.
Brian Blalock has been the new secretary of CYFD for a little more than a year, “our relationship to the community was very fractured.” He and his team have a big job ahead of them. “New Mexico has a lot of strains structurally. One of those strains, CYFD has multiple things in it; we are child welfare, we are juvenile justice, we are behavioral health for kids, we are early childhood (education).” Blalock is the head of an agency that has been heavily criticized, “we need to be thinking long term as well, so we have (a) systemic change here in New Mexico.”
Senator Michael Padilla (D) for Bernalillo County has become known as a loud voice for children. Growing up in the foster system himself, he’s passionate about it and has been behind a number of big pushes including a recent action of taking early childhood education out from under the umbrella of CYFD. “The creation of the Early Childhood and Education Department is going to lift all the early education component(s) out of CYFD into (a) new department, allowing CYFD to focus on core mission which is a family in crisis.”
CYFD has had its challenges helping New Mexico families in crisis, “we’ve made big improvements on our hotline when I first started. The average wait time for (a) hotline for central intake was one and a half hours, the long wait, three hours. We worked on that diligently now, have (it) down to almost no wait time every month,” says Blalock.
The department has also been criticized for not being responsive enough to the public. In fact, we the media get constant emails and calls from the public asking us for help with their case because they can’t get answers from CYFD. “We still need more help. We need more workers, need restructuring so we have the right workers in the right place,” Secretary Blalock tells KRQE News.
The secretary says it has also cut its vacancy rate in protective services to fourteen percent to overall to seventeen percent but that’s still nearly 400 workers short of what they should be. Blalock says the governor proposed adding 103 new positions last year but in the end, they were only funded for 23. And it’s not just the people it’s the program they also need to work on.
“We need to fully fund universal childcare, we need to fully fund early pre-k. Fully fund pre-k at earliest opportunity to help families turn (the) page, turn (the) story for their family,” says Senator Padilla. The Senator and others are working to make those things happen.
Padilla is especially proud of a bill that just passed this last legislative session that allows foster kids to continue to receive guidance and help from the state until they’re 21 years old. He says too many of these kids become homeless and unemployed. “Can you imagine going into adulthood with no safety net whatsoever and the floor falls out from under these kids. They are referred to as a foster eligible adult. We provide help in areas of employment, housing, transportation, understanding the credit system, legal system, healthcare – you name it.” The secretary is also pushing for more nontraditional childcare options in New Mexico.
And, we need more behavioral health services for parents and kids. Reports often tell the story of child abuse by a mother’s boyfriend or in the case of James Dunklee, the mother’s friend. The secretary says that’s part of a bigger issue for parents, especially if they work a nightshift and do not have access to nontraditional childcare. Where are they to leave that child?
“I think New Mexico is in crisis right now for many reasons related to (the) overall well-being of our children and our families. There’s not (a) sufficient support systems that exist in the community,” says Blalock.
Everyone agrees we are a work in progress. Senator Padilla says, “nothing is going to get solved in New Mexico until we solve our issues of poverty, hunger, child abuse, and so on. When that happens, you will find a different landscape, (a) different view of New Mexico. We are doing a lot of things right now but it’s like on (a) treadmill; we are running really hard but not getting anywhere.” Padilla says they are rebuilding processes and services as quickly as they can.