The number of New Mexico children taken into state custody because of abuse and neglect has continued to rise in the past year as the state also struggled with an increasing rate of children living in poverty and an unrelenting opioid epidemic -- issues that tend to drive up the number of children in need of care.
At about 2,600, the number of
children now in
the state's foster care
system is 15 percent higher than the average number in
fiscal year 2016, data show, and more than 50 percent higher than in
2012. A legislative report says nearly 2,700 children were in
foster care in
May -- a peak for fiscal year 2017 and the highest number of
children in state
a single month in
at least the past six years.
The trend is further pressuring a child protective services system that has failed to meet many of
its performance goals, from significantly reducing high staff turnover rates to improving the rates of
children who are reunited with their families within a year or adopted within two years.State
lawmakers on the Legislative Finance Committee are scheduled to hear a report Wednesday from the Children, Youth
and Families Department on its efforts to improve an overburdened protective custody system.
The steady rise in
children taken into custody in
recent years is partly the result of
efforts by the department to emphasize the responsibility of
the community to report concerns about abuse and neglect, Children, Youth
and Families Secretary Monique Jacobson said in
an interview Tuesday. "We've pushed hard to grow awareness about #SAFE," a cellphone hotline for reporting abuse.
"If there are kids who should be in
custody," she said, "we're glad to be able to serve those kids."
Jacobson acknowledged the agency's missed targets. "We agree that we have to continually work to improve," she said.
But some of
those goals can come into conflict with one another or efforts to ensure a child is in
the safest possible situation. For instance, Jacobson said, "As important as family reunification is, it can never be at the cost of
a child's safety."
While the agency has been striving to reach a target of
reunifying 65 percent of
children with their families within a year of
custody, the rate was 58.2 percent in
fiscal 2017. It also has a goal of
finding adoptive homes for at least 33 percent of
children in state care
within two years, which can conflict with efforts to bring families back together. And though it has tried to lower the rate of
children who re-enter foster care
after returning to their homes -- to 9 percent from
11.3 percent in
2017 and 12.6 percent in
2016 -- the agency wouldn't turn away a child who is again facing a dangerous situation in
a home, Jacobson said.
Easy to overlook in
a legislative report on the agency's failure to hit several of
its performance goals are the year-over-year gains, Jacobson said, pointing to at least five areas in
which the Protective Services Division inched closer to its targets in
The agency has seen the most success in
reducing its staff turnover rate. Though it hasn't yet reached the target rate of
20 percent, it has lowered staff turnover to 25 percent from more than 29 percent the two previous years.
"The continued reduction of
turnover rates going forward is important to provide families with experienced staff and a less fragmented system," the legislative report said.
Perhaps most troubling in
the child welfare department's performance report is the rate of
children, 11.1 percent in
2017, who face repeated incidents of
abuse or neglect.
New Mexico had the fourth-highest rate of
child maltreatment in
the nation in
2014, the most recent year for which complete federal data is available, according to a report issued last year by the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services. That year, the state
also had the third-highest rate of
children who experienced a second instance of
abuse or neglect within six months ofstate
investigators substantiating an initial report.
New Mexico's rate of
repeat maltreatment in
fiscal 2017, which ended in
June, is more than twice the national standard.
New Mexico also had the highest risks in
the nation for having a caregiver with an alcohol or drug abuse issue in
2014, the federal report said.
, however, likely have seen their caregiver drug risks rise in
recent years as an opioid crisis has surged in
the eastern United States
Decreasing the repeat child maltreatment rate is difficult, Jacobson said, because even after investigating an abuse report and determining it is valid, the agency must prove in
court that a child faces an immediate risk and should be taken into custody.
The agency receives about 40,000 reports of
possible child abuse or neglect each year, she said, and roughly 20,000 of
them are substantiated. But most often, she said, the agency finds problems, such as a family living in
poverty and struggling to provide a child's basic needs, that don't rise to a level that requires a child to be removed from home.
The agency works to connect those families with services and assistance to improve a child's well-being, but parents aren't required to follow through, Jacobson said. "It creates a bit of
a risky situation."
Addressing the issue, she said, calls for improving staff training on best practices, developing consistent procedures across the state
for investigating and reporting abuse, and increasing families' access to child care
and other resources.
The Children, Youth
and Families Department also boosted its number of
protective services workers in
the field by about
10 percent in
fiscal year 2017 and increased its number of
available foster homes by more than 22 percent to address the rising numbers of
children, according to an agency report that will be presented to lawmakers Wednesday.
There's more work to do, Jacobson said, "But we're starting to turn the corner."
Contact Cynthia Miller at 505-986-3095 or email@example.com