The Children, Youth and Family Department Advisory Council met with the public and press on Thursday to highlight how the department and the council intend to meet the mandates of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s executive order intended to improve the department.
In her February executive order, Lujan Grisham called CYFD a “system that is fundamentally broken.” After scandals rocked the department in recent years, Lujan Grisham named retired New Mexico Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Vigil to head the department in 2021. But Vigil stepped down this spring after repeated allegations came to light of significant child abuse under CYFD’s watch.
Vigil is now on the advisory council along with a group of five others and CYFD Interim Secretary Teresa Casados, who is Lujan Grisham’s chief operating officer. Casados is filling that role while the department conducts a national search to replace Vigil.
Casados said during the press conference that one fix the department has made is reimbursement to foster families. The reimbursements amounted to more than $210,000 in payments to foster families. Casados said that “was a huge issue.” She said the department is revamping its website to create a hub for foster families to submit reimbursement forms to expedite the process. Casados said the department does not want a lack of timely reimbursement to “continue to happen.”
“We did a big push to get caught up on that reimbursement. We processed over 900 reimbursements over the last two weeks,” she said.
Casados also said the department identified two areas of focus for the advisory council to consider: recruitment and retention of both foster families and employees. The department has been plagued by high turnover rates.
She said the department is also working on a plan that would track caseloads for social workers in a way that would be more nuanced. For instance, some case loads require significant work while some don’t, so rather than the department expecting a social worker to handle 10 case loads without consideration for how much work each case load entails, Casados said the department would likely be replacing it with a system that would allow each case to be evaluated separately in terms of the amount of work involved.
Casados also said the department is looking to provide a more competitive pay scale to its staff. She said that when an employee moves to another state agency for a pay increase that affects the relationship the employee built with a family.
Casados also said the department will be examining how the department recruits foster families, what steps the department requires and if all the steps are necessary or if foster families feel the process is “punitive and burdensome.”
She said the department wants to better understand how many families start the process but quit. She said the hub on the department’s website will provide information for foster families, include a frequently asked questions section as well as a place for foster families to share their stories and also provide a way for the public to make suggestions about how CYFD can improve.
Vigil and the other five members of the council introduced themselves and detailed their work histories. In addition to Vigil, Kenneth Stowe is a former foster child who is division director of Curriculum and Instruction at the New Mexico Public Education Department. Barbara Yehl is the director of Lighthouse & Adoption in Roswell. Arika Sánchez is director of policy and advocacy for a nonprofit that works with foster children called New Mexico CAN. Brennan Bowman is a middle school counselor at Albuquerque Public Schools and chief executive officer of an academic coaching service called With a Village. Rick Quevedo founded and is chief executive officer of Desert View Family Counseling Services in San Juan and McKinley counties, which provides behavioral health services for children.
State Rep. Harry Garcia, D-Grants, attended the meeting but criticized the way it was publicized. He said that only through chance was he able to travel to Santa Fe on Thursday on such short notice. He said he is concerned about the consistency of placement of children into foster families and doesn’t want to see foster children shuffled to several different homes. He also expressed concern about building capacity in some rural parts but also said mobile resources could be dispatched to rural areas that lack infrastructure.
Another aspect of Lujan Grisham’s executive order is the mandate for the department to create an office of innovation. Casados said other states have created this type of office and it will operate as a think tank for the agency.
“They will look at delivering better outcomes for services to children in CYFD. The office will work across all areas of the division, also the employees and the children and what other states are doing to recruit and train employees. They’ll be looking at all areas and all levels,” she said.
Casados said the department is responding to the part of the executive order requiring that CYFD staff respond appropriately to children who are in an emergency situation by creating an Emergency Health division that will be “a robust system for families in need of immediate services.”
Other positions the department is actively recruiting for include a deputy secretary for youth services, a director of marketing and communication and an operations manager for child services, Casados said.
Casados said there is no “end date” in the executive order, although Lujan Grisham terms out in 2026. Casados called it a “continuous workflow,” and said there will be updates and more public meetings in the future.