Protecting kids isn't just about funding

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By Sherry Robinson

Sen. Clemente Sanchez wanted to do something about child abuse and its watchdogs in the Children, Youth and Families Department. From his wife, a former social worker, he heard two words: case load. Our underpaid, overextended social workers can’t monitor each kid in a way that might have saved Omaree Varela from the allegedly brutal treatment of his mother.
Five bills in the recently completed legislative session focused on CYFD, but only one passed, an indicator of both complexity and the distance to consensus.
Sanchez wanted a limit of 15 cases, which might require another 22 hires. The Child Welfare League of America recommends 12 to 15 children per social worker; the average in CYFD is 12 to 20.
His fellow Grants Democrat, House Speaker Ken Martinez, introduced “Omaree’s Law,” which would have required CYFD to immediately take custody of a child with injuries consistent with abuse. If abuse was proven, the child would stay in custody until the parent received professional counseling.
CYFD argued that in fiscal 2013 it received more than 21,000 reports alleging physical abuse. The bill would have the unintended consequence of overwhelming not only CYFD, but the courts.
The governor supported a bill to make it clear that everybody is responsible to report abuse, but the law already prescribes that. (Omaree himself and at least one total stranger reported his abuse.)
The only successful effort was by Sen. Michael Padilla, who was himself an abused child and abused foster child. His Senate Joint Memorial 3 passed both chambers and will result in more information about the state’s overloaded foster care system.
During budget hearings, understaffing, turnover and burnout within CYFD’s Protective Services came up. The House Appropriations and Finance Committee pressed more money on the reluctant agency to add protective services positions, increase caseworker salaries, and improve foster and protective services care and support.
One of the more quoted exchanges took place in the Senate Finance Committee between Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, and CYFD Secretary Yolanda Deines, when Muñoz asked pointedly, “What are you going to do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
Deines answered honestly, “As long as we’re dealing with human behavior and human behavior being as unpredictable as it is, I believe that there is always a possibility, as sad as it is, that we could experience this once more.”
In other words, even with a regiment of caseworkers, even with reviews and reforms, it only takes a moment’s lapse for a drug-addled parent and/or caretaker (all too often, the boyfriend) to end a child’s life, or inflict permanent injuries.
Still, we can do better, and it’s not always about money.
I once knew a good social worker whose turf was a difficult, unstable area. When she’d had all the heartache she could endure, she disappeared for a few days or a week. When she returned, she was ready to hit the streets again. Her supervisors were wise enough to not bother her about her absences.
Higher pay would help, but so would mental health time, although the mechanics of creating that within the massive state employee system could be sticky.
Child advocates have persistently raised an issue more dangerous than staffing, and that’s CYFD’s emphasis on returning kids to their parents, no matter how iffy the parents are.
This may stem from a fear of appearing heavy handed (I remember those headlines too), or the studies showing it’s traumatic for kids to be removed from even bad parents, although it’s time to question those studies. Also, because our foster care system is maxed out (hence, Padilla’s bill), it may often be a decision made between two awful choices.
Speaker Martinez described Omaree’s Law as the beginning of a conversation. We need to keep talking.