It was a week into the 2020 legislative session and a group of former state foster youth had assembled by the door of the Senate chamber at the Roundhouse. The young adults, some dressed in business clothes, were there on their own dime to lobby for foster care improvements.

Some of them chased their toddlers around the public area outside the chamber.

Marco Martinez of Albuquerque was one of the aged-out foster youth. During previous legislative sessions, he helped open the eyes of lawmakers as a national youth advocate for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, he said. He’s also a youth advocate with Albuquerque-based nonprofit NMCAN, which has crafted foster youth-focused policy blueprints for legislators.

Despite a handful of reforms to the state’s foster care system over the last few legislative sessions, Martinez said, New Mexico is still catching up.

“We were talking on the way here that all of these things that we’re trying to get lawmakers to pass should’ve already been in place,” said Martinez, 26, who spent a significant portion of his teenage years in foster care in Bernalillo and Valencia counties. “To make the adults realize that is like running into a wall sometimes.”

During the 2020 session, legislators, buttressed by record-shattering oil and gas revenue in southeastern New Mexico, approved a number of laws expected to help better the lives of youth and the state’s fraught foster care and child welfare systems, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed them into law Friday.

Lawmakers made headway this year in improving conditions for foster youth, but they could and need to do more, said Ezra Spitzer, executive director of NMCAN.

“I think the 2020 session was positive but incremental for foster youth. ... There is a lot more work to be done to create systems that truly value and work for young people and their families,” he said.

‘Authentic partnership’ needed

Martinez said one challenge for him and fellow youth advocates is getting lawmakers to take them seriously.

That’s partially due to a stereotype that some foster youth, especially teens, are dangerous and emotionally unstable, he said, instead of good-hearted kids trying their best to overcome trauma — often without professional behavioral health counseling because New Mexico mostly lacks such basic services.

More often than not, he said, government policies don’t directly assist youth in care, which can inflame feelings of alienation and cause foster youth to “act out,” which deepens the stigma that foster youth are hopeless.

“You become the rebel as a young person, and they add more to your file and the binder that follows you,” Martinez said.

“To make a better system is to have authentic youth-adult partnership,” he added. “Have young people at the table. Listen to what they have to say. ... A lot of times the young people have matured more than some adults that we work with.”

Winners and compromises

A pair of foster care bills sponsored by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, subsidize guardianships and offer school credit for transfer students.

Sen. Michael Padilla, another Albuquerque Democrat, who spent his youth in the state’s foster care system, also helped greenlight crucial financial support for those growing out of care and into adulthood.

But critics say lawmakers, who allowed a tax credit for foster youth employment to stall in committee, balked at directing even more state revenue to endangered youth and families. Child welfare professionals as well as some legislators view New Mexico’s well-documented struggles — near or at the bottom of the country in measures like child poverty and educational proficiency — as a public health crisis.

Fiscally conservative legislators argued with progressive lawmakers during the session, saying the state needs to diversify and tamp down its spending portfolio to soften the blow from a potential oil bust.

The primary focus of the session was debating a new budget awash with record dollars. The oil production windfall in the Permian Basin equated to $797 million in new money for the state, according to a December Legislative Finance Committee report.

Despite the largess, Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, limited state spending, as he has in past sessions with the panel’s help. After a testy dust-up between lawmakers, Smith, a longtime moderate Democrat whom former Gov. Bill Richardson nicknamed “Dr. No,” amended a budget bill crafted by the Democrat-controlled House.

Smith trimmed proposed expenditures, including money for road repairs and teachers’ salaries.

Lujan Grisham called the session an “A-plus” for children up to age 5, especially those born into low-income families.

She and lawmakers approved $320 million to launch a new Early Childhood Trust Fund to help finance programs for the state’s new Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

Padilla’s Foster Youth Changes Act, Senate Bill 168, aligns New Mexico with a federal foster care and adoption law and triggers about $2.3 million in federal funding for the state. The aid package is accessible through the state Children, Youth and Families Department for foster youth 18 to 21 who need financial help as they transition out of care.

Like SB 168, Lopez’s Senate Bill 130 received unanimous support from both chambers. The measure gives students in foster care partial credits when they’re forced to transfer to another public school due to a foster home move.

Foster youth advocates said the lack of transfer credits has been a huge issue, forcing some students to repeat entire academic years or drop out of school entirely.

Lopez and Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, advanced Senate Bill 146, which aligns with the state’s recent push to place more foster youth with extended family, such as grandparents or other siblings, or fictive kin — caregivers who are not blood-related but have become like family members.

Lopez said SB 146 closes a loophole created by “outdated federal law” that prevents many kinship guardians from receiving financial support.

Maralyn Beck, founder of the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Child First Network and a foster parent, said, “This possibly is the greatest and one of most important bills our Legislature passed in 2020 to improve the state of child welfare in New Mexico.”

The losses

Advocates for youth in care were disappointed that Senate Bill 206, calling for an increased tax credit for employers who hire foster youth, didn’t make it out of the Senate Finance Committee. The proposed legislation, co-sponsored by Gould and Democratic Sen. George Muñoz, would have given employers a $5,000 incentive for hiring current and former foster youth.

A current state law, the first of its kind in the country when it passed in 2018, provides businesses with a $1,000 tax credit for employing youth in care, and, in turn, allows a foster youth to more easily transition to adulthood by securing steady employment.

New Mexico’s example has led to a push to pass a similar measure at the federal level.

The Child Welfare Ombudsman Act, House Bill 213, also died during the session. It proposed the creation of an ombudsman who would investigate grievances against anyone involved with the Children, Youth and Families Department.

The future

In upcoming legislative sessions, Jesús, 24, another former youth in care who trekked to Santa Fe to chat with lawmakers, said he’d like legislators to craft bills that can help youth in juvenile justice services and young people who are homeless.

Jesús, an Albuquerque resident who declined to give his last name, said he was first placed in state custody at age 5 and then adopted when he was 10. At 16, he landed back in state care, this time in the juvenile justice system. From there, he went to a residential treatment facility and then treatment foster care before becoming homeless.

Eventually, he earned a scholarship and found his own place to live. In 2019, he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and philosophy from the University of New Mexico.

Now he is a spokesman for New Mexico’s at-risk youth. He’s taking his position so seriously that instead of going to graduate school, he’s advocating for youth in care on a full-time basis.

He said it’s the least he can do.

“The decisions I make now will help impact and improve the lives of youth so that they don’t have to fall into the same cracks as I did,” Jesús said. “While it was super challenging and at times incredibly stressful to be a foster youth, I’m grateful for it.”

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