SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – They’re professionals working across New Mexico helping to treat mental health issues. They’re the behind-the-scenes individuals helping connect families within the state. And they’re professional administrators helping to get at-risk locals the assistance they need. They’re social workers and according to the state’s Social Work Task Force, New Mexico could be headed towards 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 Board of Social Work Examiners, said during a legislative meeting on Monday. “We have a lot of people who are practicing social work who shouldn’t be practicing social work.”

Fresquez is one of several experts on the Social Work Task Force, designed to examine issues within the profession. On Monday, they gave a dire warning to some of New Mexico’s legislators.

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

There are several issues the state is facing, Fresquez and his colleagues explained. Not only is the profession facing a shortage of workers in New Mexico, but some professionals currently practicing in “social work” positions aren’t properly certified, according to Fresquez.

Fresquez and colleagues provided data that show that the state’s Children, Youth, and Families Department (CYFD) has hundreds of social work positions that are filled by non-licensed social workers. The numbers suggest that only about 21% of CYFD’s “social workers” are licensed.

Later in the day, legislators asked CYFD Secretary Barbara Vigil about staffing and licensure. She responded by suggesting that due to staffing issues, non-licensed social workers sometimes need to step in to help with addressing social work across the state.

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

“We need to get paid,” Fresquez said. “We need to be supported.”

On top of the local issues highlighted by the task force, the licensure process for social workers has been under nationwide scrutiny recently. KRQE News 13 previously reported that there’s a large racial disparity within the profession in New Mexico, and those sorts of disparities have led some to question the value of social work licensure exams.

Although there are some big challenges within the profession, the Social Work Task Force did point out that progress has been made toward improving the industry. That includes funding the task force, of course, as well as establishing the Social Work Practice Act years ago.

That act is designed to protect the public. It requires Social Workers to be licensed in order to call themselves social workers or practice the tough, but important, job.