SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Several years ago, New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) settled a lawsuit with 13 children in foster care. Now, the independent watchdogs for the settlement say the state is getting a “failing grade.”
The lawsuit dates back to 2018. At the time, 13 children joined with Disability Rights New Mexico and the Native American Disability Law Center to sue the administration of then-Governor Susana Martinez. The plaintiffs claimed the state had failed New Mexico’s foster care youth by essentially denying care and failing to act in the best interest of kids.
In March 2020, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration settled the lawsuit. As part of the settlement, CYFD and the state are subject to monitoring reports by an independent body of “co-neutrals” who act as watchdogs.
On Tuesday, a couple attorneys presented the co-neutral’s 2021 annual report to state legislators in the Health and Human Services Committee. The overall conclusion: The state hasn’t made enough progress.
“This data is unvarnished truth,” says Sara Crecca, an attorney with Crecca Law Firm and Pegasus Legal Services for Children. “The state again has a failing grade after extensive review.”
The agency only met performance standards for seven of the 16 foundational targets, Crecca points out. And the agency didn’t meet any of the outcome goals.
“The state’s progress so far has been a resounding failure when measured against the agreement’s plan goals,” says Sara Crecca, an attorney with Crecca Law Firm and Pegasus Legal Services for Children. “Despite any suggestion otherwise or any points about other progress in the last month, these are the facts.”
The report details exactly where CYFD and the state’s Health and Human Services Division (HSD) are not reaching their goals. For example, one of the targets was for CYFD and HSD to develop a trauma-responsive training plan, i.e. training for all CYFD employees to ensure they understand how to care for youth experiencing trauma.
The report says the state didn’t meet that goal in 2021 because getting a plan approved took too long. A plan was approved in August of this year, but the final curriculum hasn’t been approved yet, and it will take even more time for employees to get that training.
Another failing according to the report: CYFD is not properly assessing the needs of all children in the system.
As part of the settlement, CYFD is supposed to use an assessment (called the Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths Crisis Assessment Tool or CAT) to figure out exactly what children – especially those in abusive situations – need.
But the report shows that in a sample of kids entering care from December 1, 2021 to December 21, 2021, only 34% of kids were properly assessed. And the state is supposed to share the results of those assessments with other care providers, but the report shows that there was no documentation that those reports were properly shared.
How many children does this affect? According to the report, there are around 3,000 kids in foster care in New Mexico each year. As of December 2021, 45% of the kids in state custody were under the age of seven.
Despite all the bad news, Crecca did note that there’s hope: “Other states have been here and have turned their child welfare systems around because they prioritize foster kids,” Crecca says. “We’re here to pull the fire alarm so to speak. So that as a community, as advocates, service providers, legislators, agency heads, employees of the agency, we can all trickle down on this agreement and pull out all the steps to make it happen.”
Gary Housepian, the CEO of Disability Rights New Mexico, told legislators that there has been some progress. “You heard of kids brought home, fewer kids sent out of state,” Housepian says. “However, progress is not happening fast enough.”
On Monday, CYFD Secretary Barbara Vigil gave legislators an update on progress within the agency. “As the state continues to make lasting 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 is everyone’s responsibility,” Vigil said. “We should avoid the tendency to blame one sector of our state or another, but instead to be mindful and intentional about engaging with the with each other in a spirit of support and cooperation.”
Additionally, Vigil said that the department is making changes and focusing on obligations under the settlement. For example, CYFD told legislators that there are now over 500 workers trained to deliver proper assessments to youth. But Vigil notes that changes will take time to reach full implementation, especially given issues such as staffing shortages.