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.
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 people in 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 entering state custody, the rate was 58.2 percent in fiscal 2017. It also has a goal of finding adoptive homes for at least 33 percent ofchildren 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 recent years.
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.
Children in 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.
Other states, 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 foster care 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.