Matt Esquibel, who manages the state’s child protective services office in Santa Fe County, got an odd request about a year ago from his newly appointed boss.

Monique Jacobson, who had just been named Cabinet secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department, asked if she could ride along with some of his workers responding to reports of child abuse. She gave him her cellphone number, said Esquibel, who’s been with the agency for some 20 years, and said she was ready to join workers in the field anytime, day or night. Jacobson ended up going on several late-night calls — sometimes at 2 a.m.

“I’ve never had a secretary go out into the field with staff like that,” Esquibel said.

Jacobson, 37, has surprised a lot of people since being named to head CYFD in January 2015. She stepped in after a successful stint as the state’s tourism secretary. But because she had no background in social work or counseling, many wondered whether she was the right person to lead an agency tasked with one of the state’s toughest jobs: protecting endangered children.

Complicating matters, she was assuming control at a low point for the department, which had been wracked for years with problems and high-profile cases: the 2011 beating death of 3-year-old Leland Valdez in Pojoaque; the 2013 death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela in Albuquerque; reports of abuse and the death of a teen at a youth camp.

In the last year, under Jacobson’s watch, CYFD has been largely out of the spotlight — good news for an agency that typically only grabs headlines when something goes wrong. It may be too soon to know whether that is luck or a sign of changes brought about by Jacobson. Early doubters are still keeping a cautious watch, but many are encouraged by her efforts to turn the agency around, even while navigating political battles and budget constraints.

“In a lot of ways, it’s an impossible job,” said Ezra Spitzer, executive director of Albuquerque-based New Mexico Child Advocacy Networks. He was among those who were surprised that someone new to social work was chosen to lead CYFD. But Jacobson, whose background was in economics and marketing, was humble about her inexperience, he said, and she was eager to learn. She “disarmed people.” She listened — even to teens in the state’s foster care program.

Rebecca Dow, policy chairwoman of the New Mexico Child Care and Education Association, had similar thoughts: “We have found her to be a quick study of the complicated issues in the child care services division. She seems genuinely committed to improving the agency.”

Looking back on her first year in the position during a recent interview, Jacobson admitted that it can be difficult. But she said she doesn’t regret taking on the challenge. “I’ve never loved a job as much as I love this job,” she said.

As tourism secretary, Jacobson’s job was to tout all the best the state had to offer: outdoor recreation, unique cultures, exquisite cuisine, striking landscapes, stunning sunsets. Her new job has immersed her in a different side of New Mexico, with dismal statistics for child well-being repeated in report after report: high rates of child abuse and poverty, low student proficiency scores and high dropout rates.

But Jacobson sees it differently. “I’ve seen more beauty than ever before in the last year,” she said.

From caseworkers who “live it every day,” to foster parents who give children safe and loving homes, to the kids her agency serves — they’re “savvy and smart and creative and funny” — Jacobson is inspired, she said.

The department’s own reports and its quarterly scorecard from the Legislative Finance Committee show a mix of successes and missed targets over the year. Some high points: An increasing rate of children in state-funded preschool programs are showing progress as they prepare to enter kindergarten; 94 percent of New Mexico infants are immunized; nearly 89 percent of mothers are breastfeeding; the turnover rates for child protective services and juvenile justice workers have plunged; the number of assaults in juvenile detention centers has fallen.

But thousands of kids who may qualify for child care aid aren’t enrolled in preschool programs, scores of CYFD positions remain unfilled and the agency still struggles to ensure that children who have suffered abuse don’t face mistreatment in their homes again.

According to the agency’s first-quarter report for fiscal year 2016, more than 10 percent of children in its care face a second episode of “substantiated maltreatment” within six months of the first report — a number that’s held steady for the past three years. Nearly 9 percent of kids in the agency’s juvenile detention centers ended up in an adult jail a year after their release, according to the most recent CYFD report. And the number of kids who returned to a juvenile facility that quarter was 16.3 percent — a steep spike from 7.6 percent in fiscal year 2015.

Jacobson doesn’t deny that the department has some work to do. “We don’t hide from our mistakes or our problems,” she said.

Last year, her agency had to respond to allegations of sexual abuse at a juvenile detention center near Ruidoso that led to the shutdown of the Lincoln Pines Youth Center. And last month, a 3-year-old girl in Albuquerque nearly died of hypothermia after being left in a bathtub full of ice-cold water, allegedly as punishment, at a home that CYFD workers had visited a couple of months before.

Agency spokesman Henry Varela said the call that sent staff to the home in November wasn’t a report of abuse and didn’t involve young children. Still, the agency faced questions over the case last weekend, after the child’s aunt, 18-year-old Tiffany Desvigne, and grandmother, 49-year-old Adelle Rigsby, were charged with child abuse. Many of those questions the agency can’t answer publicly, due to confidentiality rules. But Varela said the girl, who is recovering at the University of New Mexico Hospital, and her 2-year-old brother are in CYFD custody.

“A case like this is heartbreaking and totally unacceptable,” Jacobson said of the incident in an email. “No child should ever be disciplined in this manner.” If anyone hears about this type of abuse, she said, they need to report it to the agency immediately.

For Jacobson, meeting the challenges of CYFD head on and fulfilling the agency’s mission — “improve the quality of life for our children” — began with an effort to transform the culture of the agency for its employees. She said she has worked to give staff members more support and ensure that they are “appreciated and heard.”

Another top task for Jacobson was to make sure families who need help have access to services — those offered by the state as well those provided by nonprofits in local communities. For instance, Jacobson said, only a third of the children who are eligible for child care assistance are receiving it. “How do we get more people to take advantage of services that are already here?”

Her answer lies in home-visiting programs for new parents and a proposed $1 million “Pull Together” campaign — a “grass-roots” initiative to create a network of community organizations and to make sure struggling families know about the services and aid available to them.

Jacobson also has been working to make caseloads more manageable for CYFD workers. With a budget increase in 2015, she was able to add 45 caseworker positions. But she also had to fill jobs that had long been vacant, attract workers to the new positions and slow the high turnover rate. Jacobson said she’s made progress by offering incentives, such as bonus pay and assistance with school loans. Her agency also has improved its training process, she said, and it gives iPhones to field workers — not as a luxury, she said, but as a safety tool.

Esquibel said his office has seen the benefits of that effort. His caseworker positions are now 90 percent full, he said. “Any time you have more people in the field, caseloads do go down.”

This legislative session, Jacobson is asking for funding to bring more child protective services workers on board. As lawmakers grapple with a grim outlook for new state revenue, she has had to scale back her request for a budget increase, but she may be able to add 31 positions to her staff of more than 2,000 employees in 32 offices across the state.

Jacobson said she’s reached out to all of them.

Thomas Montoya, deputy director of administration for CYFD’s Early Childhood Services Division, said he has seen a boost in morale among the department’s workers since Jacobson came on board. He said she has “inspired greatness.”

What she does, he said, is remind employees of the impact their work has on children and families across the state. “Sometimes in government, we have purchase orders … we have budgets,” he said, and it’s easy to forget the real mission. But Jacobson keeps that mission in the forefront.

Gov. Susana Martinez also had praise for Jacobson. “She’s a leader who puts our kids first,” Martinez said in a statement.

Jacobson replaced Yolanda Deines, who served during Martinez’s first term and then announced her resignation in December 2014, not long after Martinez was re-elected.

State Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, was one of only two senators who voted against Jacobson’s nomination last year, citing worries over her lack of experience.

Asked about Jacobson’s performance one year later, Lopez said, “There’s a lot of work, and it’s not going to happen in one year.”

Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, the other senator who voted against Jacobson’s nomination, agreed, saying the department needs eight to 12 years to make substantial changes.

“I think she is a true professional,” Padilla said of Jacobson, praising her performance at the helm of the Tourism Department. But as a former child of the state’s foster care system, he said, he believes the agency should be led by someone who has experience in the field.

Padilla and Jacobson divide on one prominent issue: early childhood education. Padilla is pushing for passage of a measure that would let voters decide on whether the state can tap a $15 billion endowment for early education dollars. Jacobson, like Gov. Martinez and many Republican lawmakers — and even some Democrats — doesn’t see the Land Grant Permanent Fund as a solution.

Veronica Garcia, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, differs with Jacobson on another funding issue: “We’re concerned to see $2 million spent on an outreach campaign when those dollars could be spent on services,” she said in a statement, referring to funding the agency requested for its Pull Together campaign.

And Reina Acosta of the Albuquerque-based OLÉ Working Parents Association said Jacobson “hasn’t requested the budget CYFD needs to enroll more parents [in the child care assistance program] and pay educators a living wage.”

Spitzer, of the Child Advocacy Networks, agrees that he would like to see the agency take some big leaps that would affect the lives of the foster kids he fights for. But he sees Jacobson taking small, steady steps in the right direction.

“I think one plus of Monique is that she really understand partnerships,” he said. “She knows how to do it, and she understands it’s important.”

Contact Cynthia Miller at 986-3095 or cmiller@sfnewmexican.com.

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