Earlier this month, yet another case of suspected child abuse made headlines when two emaciated children were removed from their home in Cedar Crest. The children were found by Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies standing at attention and wearing diapers.
Thanks to the diligent work of BCSO detectives, these children were discovered before it was too late. But the situation leaves New Mexicans wondering why something wasn’t done earlier.
When I was first elected as a state representative, one of my commitments was to improve child protection for children living in unsafe home environments in New Mexico. I heard from many New Mexicans that our child welfare system was broken and something needed to be done.
People working within the system told me that communication between families and New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department was challenging. They observed that CYFD caseworkers were overworked and under-trained, leading to burnout and high staff turnover. The agency’s policies were not well-documented and unevenly applied, sometimes causing the agency to miss some extreme cases of child abuse and neglect.
Seven years ago, I partnered with the administration to open New Mexico’s first rural advocacy center for child welfare. The center was located in Los Lunas, and it was intended to improve communication and build trust between CYFD and the people who work with it.
I soon learned that creating a small regional office was like putting a band-aid on a gushing arterial wound. One advocacy office was no match for the years of systemic dysfunction that had been plaguing CYFD.
Every administration vows to improve CYFD, yet failure after failure continues to happen. Limited solutions are not enough. A complete cultural change must happen.
This year, I am presenting a bill that represents the first step in this culture change. My proposal, creates a Child Welfare Ombudsman Office for New Mexico. This office gives anyone involved with CYFD — a child, parent, foster parent, court-appointed special advocate or social worker — a forum to report a concern and have that concern investigated.
This office has real authority. It is separate from CYFD and protects the confidentiality of those who report concerns. The bill also establishes training requirements and gives the ombudsman the authority to hold the agency accountable to these requirements.
Everyone engaged with child welfare services understands the sensitivity of the information handled by CYFD. However, sometimes the agency surrounds their actions with impenetrable walls of secrecy, shielding their actions from scrutiny and accountability.
For example, last year a task force was convened to review CYFD’s practices and recommend improvements. However, this task force has chosen to operate behind closed doors, without public involvement. Stakeholders, like foster families and child advocates, aren’t even being provided notice of the meetings.
An ombudsman office will help change this situation. This office has the authority to compel access to CYFD records. It can operate as an objective, third-party arbiter to resolve issues between the different individuals involved in our child welfare system. Because it is independent of CYFD, people who report concerns can be protected from retaliation.
The problems addressed by the bill are not unique to New Mexico. In fact, 22 states have identified the need for this function within their child welfare services, and they have created offices to carry out the duties I outline in my bill.
Other entities within our state government, such as the Aging and Long Term Services Department, have established a similar office. Shouldn’t we offer New Mexico’s children the same protection and resources we provide to our state’s seniors?
While an ombudsman office will not solve all of the problems within New Mexico’s child welfare system, it will help identify breakdowns and improve transparency.
The time for excuses is over. We can no longer wait for CYFD to fix itself. I hope my colleagues in the Legislature will support this idea to restore trust and accountability in New Mexico’s child protection system.
Rep. Kelly Fajardo, guest columnist
Kelly Fajardo, a Republican, has been the District 7 representative for Valencia County in the New Mexico Legislature since 2013. She is a small business owner.