Good government and the path to protecting our state’s children

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By Sherry Robinson

At a neighborhood meet-and-greet for political candidates the other night, the subject of child abuse came up. Again. People are still troubled by these little faces in the news and what the state is or is not doing. Mostly not doing.
So far, we’ve looked for somebody to stone in the public square, which isn’t helpful. One candidate has talked about solutions: Lawrence Rael, one of five Democratic candidates for governor.
Rael talks instead about governance. It’s not snappy talk show banter, but governance is what’s missing, he says.
These days, the constant rant is for less government, but as the current administration has shown, a smaller Children, Youth and Family Department isn’t a better department. Not until these well publicized deaths did CYFD admit it was short-staffed. Until then, understaffing was good. Returning money to the general fund was good.
What if we could have a more efficient government, a more responsive government? A better government? That’s governance.
I’ve been waiting for a gubernatorial candidate to say something beyond campaign slogans. Last time we had Susana Martinez campaigning against Bill Richardson. Now we have five people campaigning against Martinez and Martinez campaigning against unions and undocumented immigrants. What do they intend to do?
So I paid attention when Rael began to talk about governance, a subject he knows well. He usually reaches back to his experience as Albuquerque’s chief administrative officer for examples — working in the background to get something done, or bringing warring parties together or negotiating with unions to keep the budget balanced. A source I trust in the financial community says Rael was the most effective CAO he’s ever seen.
Rael was also executive director of the Mid-Region Council of Governments, which is where I met him while working on a project for the organization.
That doesn’t make him an Albuquerque guy. He grew up in tiny Sile, near Cochiti Pueblo. His father was killed by a drunk driver when he was three, and his mother struggled to support her six children. He knows what it’s like to go to bed hungry.
Rael’s manner is so low key that his supporters joke about making him more of a politician, but, hey, low key worked for Jeff Bingaman.
Rael didn’t hesitate a second when the subject of child abuse came up. He would bring together CYFD, the police and other stakeholders and ask what we can do better. And then he would work with all the parties to make sure it happened. (Candidate Gary King proposed an independent commission to investigate, but this would just make the participants more defensive.)
After the death of Omaree Varela, CYFD investigated. So did the Albuquerque Police Department. Did either one talk to the other? Probably not. Did the governor involve herself? No.
Even if CYFD had acted, said a neighbor who is retired from counseling children in the schools, its tools are pathetic — a referral to services with no follow-up. The department’s in-home services program has never been evaluated, according to news reports.
Omaree’s mother complained that her boy had behavioral problems. He probably did, said the counselor. A child subjected to that level of abuse has probably sustained head injuries, and it will affect his behavior. Omaree needed foster care of a special kind in which foster families get a lot of supervision. It’s expensive, so New Mexico doesn’t have many of these homes, said the counselor. We don’t have enough foster care of any kind, she said, but the department isn’t trying to recruit families.
The governor dismisses any such talk, especially any criticism of her administration as politically motivated, but public discussion of these painful subjects is the heart of our democratic process. If we forget Omaree, Izabellah and Leland, there’s something wrong with us.