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Child Abuse and Neglect Cases Up in New Mexico as CYFD Struggles With Staffing Shortages

As the state Children, Youth and Families Department continues to struggle with staffing shortages, the beleaguered child welfare agency is seeing an uptick in child abuse and neglect cases among New Mexico youth.

Child abuse and neglect case filings are on track to increase by more than 50% this year over 2022, according to a recent report by the Legislative Finance Committee.

As of early July, CYFD had filed 339 cases of child abuse and neglect statewide. It filed a total of 448 cases last year.

“If the agency files the same number of cases in the second half of 2023, the 2023 total for new cases will be 678, 200 more than in 2022,” the report states.

State Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, called the increase in child abuse and neglect cases alarming amid a staff vacancy rate of 26.1%.

“I understand that they’re trying to fix [the agency], and they’re trying to do good, and they’re trying to dot all their I’s and cross all their T’s,” she said. “But the data is in, and they’re not doing a good job.”

The increase of youth in state custody as the agency works to fill positions comes on the heels of a scathing report from independent monitors who said CYFD has devolved into a “state of chaos,” Searchlight New Mexico reported last month, citing the monitors’ assessment.

“The situation is worse than last year, deteriorating, and requires effective immediate action to protect children’s safety,” the monitors wrote in a Sept. 18 letter to the acting secretaries of CYFD and the Human Services Department.

CYFD attributes the increase in child abuse and neglect cases partly to a so-called “bounce back” from a decrease in filings during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Fewer reports (due to children not being in school) means fewer investigations; fewer investigations mean fewer opportunities to identify safety factors that result in child removals,” Jessica Preston, a CYFD spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

From January to June, for example, 510 children were placed in foster care.

During the same period last year, the number of children placed in state custody was 385. Five years ago, also from January to June, 504 children were removed from their homes.

“The most prominent circumstantial trend observed in the last 6 months has been the proportion of removals due to parental substance abuse, which typically manifests as child neglect,” Preston wrote.

In the first five months of the year in 2022, parental substance abuse accounted for 27% of children removed from their homes. During the same period this year, it accounted for 45% of child removals.

Preston said there is a link between the number of case filings and youth in state custody.

“More children coming into custody doesn’t necessarily correspond with a higher number of children leaving custody,” she wrote. “So, we’re seeing more children coming in, with little change in the rate of children exiting care.”

Currently, there are 1,989 children in state custody, a nearly 14% increase over October 2022.

Asked how the agency was dealing with more youth in state custody with a high worker vacancy rate, Preston said it takes a coordinated effort.

“Our first priority is to try and place children with family when coming into custody. If family is unable to be a placement, we rely on our awesome foster/resource parents,” she wrote, adding 45% of all children removed from their homes are placed with a relative.

Preston said CYFD has been able to reduce its staff vacancy rate through various methods. The vacancy rate is down from almost 30% in mid-September.

“CYFD continues to participate in hiring events and on-going recruitment efforts including advertising, rapid hire events, social media, etc.,” she wrote, adding the State Personnel Office has more than 100 job openings posted online.

Sen. Crystal Diamond Brantley, R-Elephant Butte, said the agency’s staffing shortages are a symptom of a deeper issue.

“CYFD is broken,” she said. “When the objective of the agency is anything less than the best interest of the child, they will continue to fail at protecting these children and retaining qualified staff.”

Diamond Brantley said the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, needs to take decisive action.

“It’s time to end the stonewalling,” she said. “The Legislature has put forward viable, bipartisan solutions. The governor must include CYFD reform to her call [during the upcoming 30-day legislative session] so we can make the necessary reforms to restore faith and efficacy in this failing department.”

Source: Santa Fenew Mexican