February 17, 2023

Governor announces plan to overhaul ‘dysfunctional’ child welfare agency

Luis Sánchez Saturno/The Santa Fe New Mexican

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, left, joined by Children, Youth and Families Department Secretary Barbara Vigil, speaks Thursday during a news conference to announce an executive order calling for changes at one of the state’s most problematic agencies.

By Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a number of initiatives Thursday to address long-standing challenges with one of the state’s most problematic agencies: the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.

“We are embracing as professionals that this department is dysfunctional,” Lujan Grisham said at a news conference at the state Capitol. 

The governor said New Mexico will contract an out-of-state legal firm to create annual independent audits of the child welfare agency; hire four new department leaders to provide more focused management; and recruit retired social workers to help ease caseloads that critics say overwhelm the agency. 

The department plans to launch a public data dashboard; though, information on specific cases will be sparse to avoid violating state and federal confidentiality laws, Lujan Grisham said. She also envisions a new advisory council with members versed in child welfare matters to make recommendations on improvements to services.

Lujan Grisham signed an executive order calling for the changes.

Rep. Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, announced at the news conference she also introduced House Bill 461 to mirror the governor’s plan in state statute. Thursday was last day to introduce new bills in this year’s legislative session.

The announcement came at the midway point in the session and months after two reports cited a series of problems at the Children, Youth and Families Department. The agency, primarily tasked with keeping vulnerable young residents safe, has faced fierce criticism for years — often in relation to high-profile child deaths — along with persistent struggles to recruit and retain critical staff and meet key goals.

Among its duties, the agency provides family intervention and support services; investigates allegations of child mistreatment or neglect; oversees the state’s foster care system; offers behavioral health services for children and teens; and operates juvenile justice facilities and programs. One of its top jobs is ensuring kids who have experienced maltreatment don’t face further abuse.

A 2022 report by Legislative Finance Committee said the state’s rate of repeat maltreatment of children declined by three percentage points between fiscal years 2018 and 2022. However, the report said the rate remains far higher than the national average. The data showed 14% of New Mexico children who experienced a substantiated report of abuse or neglect in fiscal year 2022 suffered another such incident within a year; the rate nationwide was 8%.

The legislative report followed the release of an independent review of the 30-year-old agency that found high staff turnover, heavy workloads and employee fear were impeding CYFD from doing its job. The review, commissioned by Cabinet Secretary Barbara Vigil, a former state Supreme Court justice appointed to lead CYFD in 2021, came after a string of violent child deaths raised concerns about lack of agency oversight. In some of the cases, the agency had been notified of concerns in the household before the child’s death, according to court documents and news reports.

Vigil said at Thursday’s news conference a worker task force is looking at “how are we treating our workforce, retaining them, making sure we are also recruiting them.”

It’s not easy to hire people to fill the agency’s positions — some of the most difficult jobs in the state that come with heavy emotional burdens — Lujan Grisham noted. “It’s high risk for low reward,” she said, adding the only benefit of the job may be in helping children. 

Vigil said for her and her employees, it is “very traumatic work. It’s traumatic for everyone in the industry.”

More details about the plan to overhaul CYFD will be released after the legislative session ends in mid-March, the governor said, adding she will be looking for ways to leverage funding to support the plan.

“The number one priority of that department is protecting children and improving their well-being,” Lujan Grisham said. “That is not what is occurring in the state of New Mexico.”

Several lawmakers and child advocacy group representatives at the conference praised Lujan Grisham for announcing changes to CYFD. Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, said kids in state custody “don’t have a bunch of lobbyists running around the building taking care of their needs.”

But Maralyn Beck, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group New Mexico Child First Network, criticized the governor’s plan, arguing there’s little in it to suggest it would improve the child welfare agency’s operations. 

Regarding the governor’s plan to hire retired social workers to fill staffing gaps, Beck said, “We can’t keep filing holes until we fix what is broken. They have a workforce turnover crisis issue, and until we fix that culture, we can hire as many people as we want but it’s not going to help.”

Some Senate Republicans also held a news conference Thursday to discuss problems at CYFD and legislation they said would help prioritize child protections.

Sens. Crystal Diamond of Elephant Butte, David Gallegos of Eunice and Greg Schmedes of Tijeras said they hope to draw bipartisan support for their measures. One of the bills, Senate Bill 373, would create an Office of Child Advocate to review CYFD procedures and report on them. Diamond said New Mexicans need “outside eyes” to watch the agency.

So far, the measure hasn’t had its first hearing, and none appears to be scheduled. The bill has been assigned to three Senate committees, which means it has a long way to go in the session’s second half.

Diamond said it’s vital for lawmakers to act now to ensure the state’s children are protected.

“We don’t need another dead child to make this an issue,” she said.