New Mexico’s Children Youth and Families Department along with the state’s Human Services Department settled in federal court last week with a group of plaintiffs that include children in foster care. The suit alleged that the state’s foster program was severely lacking in services and resources.
Both CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock and the plaintiff’s legal team are touting the settlement agreement as the first of its kind as it incorporates changes to the system through a collaborative effort.
Kathryn Eidmann, with national pro bono law firm Public Counsel, is part of the plaintiff’s legal team. Eidmann called the collaborative settlement agreement “groundbreaking and the first of its kind in the nation.”
“[The agreement] centers the impact that trauma has on young people in the foster system and designs a system that is trauma responsive at every stage and every step of the process,” Eidmann said. “That truly does make New Mexico a national leader and a national model that other reformers in this area can look to as they think about reforming their own system to better meet the needs of children in care.”
The settlement stipulates a time table and benchmarks for changes to the state’s foster care program. For example, by the end of this year, the state will ensure no children are housed in hotels or state offices. By December 2021, every child going into CYFD’s care will go through a comprehensive screening process. And by 2022, children entering the system will get behavioral healthcare and trauma responsive services.
Clinical Supervising Attorney for Stanford’s Youth and Education Law Project, Tara Ford, said another important piece of the settlement is compliance with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).
“It recognizes that native youth need the opportunity to be able to participate in cultural traditions,” Ford said. “And they also need support should they decide that they want to participate in those traditions.”
The agreement also stipulates that there will be three neutral parties, along with the state and plaintiffs, involved in monitoring progress and making sure the state meets its deadlines.
“Instead of spending the time and resources to fight this lawsuit, we were able to collaborate with Secretary Blalock, [HSD] Secretary Scrase and their teams to come together to develop a plan going forward that we think is going to be really transformative for New Mexico’s foster youth,” Eidmann said. “We think it is a really smart and strategic plan in that it recognizes that change, especially change in large systems, takes time.
The lawsuit, filed in New Mexico’s Federal District Court, goes back to the previous administration under former Gov. Susana Martinez. The suit argued that New Mexico’s child welfare system was the “among the worst in the nation” and violated federal law by not providing essential health services to children in the foster care program.
Blalock told NM Political Report that when he was hired by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a few months after the lawsuit was filed, he already planned on making changes along the lines of what the plaintiffs were asking for. He said he thinks his plans for the department showed good faith in making changes.
“I think that really created trust between the two parties and that’s something that’s often missing in litigation,” Blalock, who is also an attorney, said.
Blalock sees the settlement as a first of its kind, because he agreed with the plaintiffs.
“Part of what made it so different is that when we sat down with plaintiffs we quickly figured out that we agreed on a lot of those things,” he said.
Going forward, Eidmann said she thinks the settlement plan’s detailed timeline of events along with the collaborative involvement of stakeholders will ensure things will get done without further legal filings.
“This plan really has kind of a conceptual breadth, but the kinds of details that are intentionally designed to help the system become trauma informed,” she said.