NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – KRQE News 13’s latest investigative report highlights a tragic example of what some children in New Mexico’s foster care system face. New Mexico has seen several high-profile stories of child abuse in the last decade, but just how frequent are cases of child abuse and neglect inside the state?

A federally sponsored nationwide study revealed that around 600,000 children are victimized in the U.S. each year. In New Mexico alone there were 7,050 children who were abused or neglected in 2020, according to the research compiled from child protective service reports.

Each year, New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) receives around 39,000 reports of abuse and neglect, according to recent CYFD reports. Some of these are dropped because they don’t include enough information to open an investigation. Others turn out to be “substantiated,” meaning there’s credible evidence that abuse occurred.

Of those that are investigated, between 5,000 and 9,000 reports end up being “substantiated allegations” each year. That is, CYFD finds over 5,000 instances of child abuse or neglect in New Mexico each year.

Some abuse and neglect occurs when children are with their birth parents or outside the foster care system. The abuse is often what spurs CYFD to take the child into the child welfare system. In fact, around a quarter of children entering New Mexico’s foster care system do so as an attempt to protect them from abuse, according to an analysis of federal data.

But once in the system, the outcome isn’t always better. Reports of abusive adoptive and foster parents highlight a key issue: Children in foster care can also be at-risk for some of the worst, repeat abuse.

Recent data from CYFD reveals that New Mexico hasn’t reached its goal for reducing maltreatment of foster care youth. The latest data, from October 2022, shows that CYFD’s “foster care maltreatment rate” has been on a downward trend, but the state’s Legislative Finance Committee gives the program a “red” rating, meaning there’s still work to be done.

A particularly troubling measure that New Mexico’s legislators are watching is the percent of children who are repeatedly maltreated. After all, if the system is working properly, CYFD’s protective services and other workers should ideally be able in intervene after the first instance of maltreatment or abuse. While there are often examples of CYFD intervention, repeat maltreatment remains high.

“New Mexico consistently ranks among the top six states for repeat maltreatment occurring within 12 months of an initial allegation,” according to a recent Legislative Finance Committee report. CYFD’s latest data from October 2022 shows that around 14 out of every 100 kids – whom CYFD knows was maltreated – is maltreated again within a one-year period.

Data compiled by the state’s Legislative Finance Committee highlight NM’s repeat maltreatment rate.

According to CYFD documents KRQE News 13 obtained by a public records request, younger children have the highest rates of repeat maltreatment. Children over the age of 10 tend to have lower rates of repeat maltreatment. Additionally, Hispanic children have higher repeat maltreatment rates than other children, according to the documents.

CYFD challenges

Revelations from the data are not new. Many of the key indicators have shown for years that New Mexico has challenges with child welfare. High profile cases such as the death of a 1-month-old in Valencia County (a case in which a CYFD social worker failed to follow up), the death of 4-year-old James Dunklee (which resulted in allegations of a CYFD cover-up), and the death of a blind 16-year-old who was the victim of parental neglect (it’s not clear what happened to the other children in the household; CYFD wouldn’t comment when the story originally broke) reveal that kids can, and do, die from abuse and neglect.

Federally compiled data shows that New Mexico has a relatively high child fatality rate. From 2016 to 2020, 63 children died as a result of abuse and neglect, according to U.S. Department of Health & Human Services data.

But across the state, people are working to improve the system. Despite giving CYFD a “failing grade” for progress made on court-mandated improvements, several attorneys with child services experience recently told state legislators that there has been progress in recent years. For example, New Mexico is relying less on out-of-state “treatment centers” as a solution for foster kids, the lawyers told legislators.

And CYFD, under relatively new leadership, says they’re making progress. “CYFD is building a system, a public child welfare system, that is based on three principles,” CYFD Secretary Barbara Vigil told legislators earlier this week. “Number one, we are to be accountable. We are to be responsive to the best interests of our children and to those we serve. Number two, collaboration. We cannot do this alone. We can’t wave a wand and solve everyone’s problems and the issues that surround a public child welfare system. We have to work together in collaboration with stakeholders and child welfare partners. And finally, we must be transparent to the extent it is legally possible. We must share information not only about our accomplishments, but perhaps even more importantly about the challenges we face and what we need to do this work and improve the lives of the 10s of 1000s of children and families that we serve.”

Right now, one of the big challenges is staffing. Across the state, New Mexico has a 50.7% turnover rate among CYFD staff in key positions, such as investigators and placement workers, according to their October report. Nearly a third of those key positions across the state are now vacant, according to the numbers. The Rio Arriba and Los Alamos office reported a 77.8% vacancy rate and a turnover rate above 100%.

“Much of the workforce shortage is due to poor recruitment and retention because working in the child welfare system is stressful, exposure to trauma is common, and the job is emotionally taxing,” according to a 2022 Legislative Finance Report. “Additionally many people recruited into the system have a skills mismatch and leave due to a lack of training.”

A plan for progress

In order to solve some of the issues with foster care, New Mexico recently created a plan to conform with federal standards of care. In 2018, the federal government passed the Family First Prevention Services Act, which aims to keep kids in their homes when possible, reduce bureaucratic delays preventing kids from being placed in foster homes when necessary, and creates grants to fund substance abuse treatment.

Through a public records request, KRQE News 13 obtained a copy of the plan CYFD created to submit to the federal government earlier this year to qualify. It details some improvements CYFD hopes to make.

Those plans including better, federally approved, assessments of the safety of foster care children. CYFD also says they will create a better home visit system, which includes medical and behavioral health care. The idea there is to address problems early, before children need to be taken out of their homes. And earlier this year, CYFD announced that they’re retraining investigators and ensuring that safety assessments are used uniformly throughout the state.

While some of the changes should fix immediate problems, others are long-term solutions. CYFD’s plan notes a multi-agency focus on simply improving the lives of New Mexico’s families by decreasing stress, increasing access to care, and improving cultural sensitivity.

Additionally, data shows that CYFD has been spending more and more on prevention of maltreatment and similar issues. “Spending on prevention programs within the Protective Services Program was about 6% of total expenditures in FY22 [fiscal year 2022], but the amount has grown significantly since FY18,” according to a recent Legislative Finance Report.

A budget breakdown shows CYFD has been putting more funds towards prevention services. Image from LFC.

How New Mexico compares to other states

Despite there being around 3,000 kids in and around New Mexico’s foster care system in recent years, New Mexico has a relatively low rate of foster care use, given our population. Federal data from fiscal year 2021 shows that New Mexico’s foster care system serves far fewer children, per capita, than states such as Montana, Kansas, Arizona, and West Virginia, to name a few. And nationally, the number of children served by foster care providers has decreased over the last decade.