It’s nearing the close of normal business hours on a Wednesday afternoon at the Albuquerque offices of the state Children, Youth and Families Department as Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock munches on a vegan cookie he’s brought from a local ayurvedic restaurant.

He looks spry in a navy blue suit, even though he’s been at it since 2 a.m.

“This is a perfect job. I love it,” said Blalock, 43. “We have a governor who genuinely cares about [child and family welfare] and prioritizes it and only wants us to go faster.”

As the leader of the state’s child and family protective services since January 2019, Blalock sees the extreme working hours as necessary to reverse New Mexico’s alarming child well-being results of the past decade.

CYFD has been under fire in the public eye and in the legal system. But the agency is making wholesale changes to the way it approaches child welfare through internal improvements in morale and holistic, inclusive external policies.

A concentrated effort to align with New Mexico’s Native American tribes and pueblos led to the creation of one of the country’s few Indian Child Welfare Act courts. There also has been a push, in New Mexico and nationwide, to place youth with relatives instead of with someone they may not know well.

Over the past few years, the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count report has placed New Mexico near or at the bottom of the country for child well-being. The recently released 2019 New Mexico Kids Count Data Book shows the state has improved the rate of child poverty, teen births, child health insurance and preschool attendance, but has regressed in fourth grade reading and eighth grade math proficiency rates. The state also tops the nation for suicides of youth ages 15 to 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it ranks No. 1 in the country for alcohol-related death and disease, the New Mexico Department of Health reported.

A history of poor performance, along with a governor whose top priorities include making New Mexico a safer place for children, has led to an unusual experiment in state governance. Instead of appointing public servants with career trajectories that may suggest they’ll soon be moving up another rung of the political ladder, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who recently completed her first year in office, employed problem- solvers with substantive expertise in related fields.

“If we need backup politically or help figuring out something, [Lujan Grisham] is there for us and has our back,” said Blalock, who didn’t have any previous job experience in government or ties to New Mexico. Before leading CYFD, which administers child protection and juvenile justice services, he worked as an attorney for Bay Area Legal Aid, a nonprofit that represents children with disabilities as well as youth in the juvenile justice system.

The unusual strategy models an out-of-the-box movement that’s starting to surface across the country, one that foster care expert Amelia Franck Meyer, who has more than 30 years of experience in child welfare, says could profoundly shift foster care within the next five years.

‘Perfect child welfare system already exists’

National and statewide leaders and practitioners described the country’s foster care and child welfare systems — which critics say is poisoned with irrevocable racial and class biases — as beyond repair at a New Mexico Children’s Law Institute conference earlier this month in Albuquerque.

“It’s important to understand that our foster care system only appears to be broken,” said Lexie Gruber, a vocal proponent of foster care reform who spent seven years as a youth in care in Connecticut. “In fact, it is currently working exactly as it was designed — separating children from their loved ones and underinvesting in helping families in crisis. … It’s one of the most violent acts that the government can do.”

A number of child welfare advocates are proposing a new foster care method that avoids family separation at all costs and prioritizes kinship guardianship, or relative placement, where the child lives with a grandparent, aunt, uncle, brother, sister or even a trusted neighbor or teacher instead of a stranger.

Several studies, including a 2007 report by Pew Charitable Trust and a 2018 report in Research on Social Work, show that out-of-home placement with strangers yields little to no measurable benefit for the child and actually inflicts trauma.

Alabama, which flipped from ubiquitous child welfare dysfunction in the 1990s to a nationwide model for child protective services agencies, is seen today as an example to follow.

“The perfect child welfare system already exists. It’s called the family,” said Meyer, CEO of Alia, during the conference.

Her St. Paul, Minn.-based nonprofit has instigated profound child welfare reform throughout the country, she said, with positive turnarounds for children and families in Cass County, Mo.; Washington County, Md.; two Wisconsin counties and 10 counties in eastern Iowa.

In Washington County, the number of youth in care and children in residential care facilities dropped by 12 percent and 37 percent, respectively, from fiscal year 2018 to 2019, she said.

“They did it with no new funding, no new rules, no new guidelines, no new laws, no new service providers. They did it by changing their mindset,” Meyer said.

Holistic approaches to foster care, if correctly implemented, can thoroughly and swiftly change the face of child welfare, she said.

Relative placement is one of CYFD’s top priorities, given that only 23 percent of the New Mexico’s foster youth are officially living with a relative, Blalock said.

According to Cynthia Chavers, an acting field director at the agency’s Protective Services Division, the agency is investing in software to find kin as early as possible and as the initial placement whenever possible.

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CYFD eased its stringent licensing requirements for relative, fictive kin (not related by blood) and nonrelative foster and adoptive care providers Jan. 31. This was an issue that had hampered statewide kinship care efforts, said state Democratic Rep. Gail Chasey.

Some had brushed aside the proposal, which also allows reunification with a child’s biological parents if the family’s challenges have been rectified. The American Bar Association will use New Mexico’s example as a best practice for other states, Blalock said. A handful of child welfare systems throughout the country don’t require a kinship care license for relatives.

Chasey, an attorney who has been a state representative since 1997, says a bold maneuver might be the panacea that’s required to ease the rip current for the state’s at-risk kids and families.

“I think we need to take a more radical approach,” she said, “but radical might be hard given the years and years of a certain culture.”

Internal culture changes

Before external reforms could take hold, Blalock realized he needed to reprogram thought patterns within and outside the child welfare agency.

Often, he said, discussions about children in New Mexico are “focused on all of the things that are going wrong and all of the problems. For somebody that’s coming in from the outside, it has created a bit of an echo chamber that I feel is incredibly misleading.”

He has been able to fill many caseworker openings. But long-standing child welfare policies (or lack thereof) have roadblocked the state, he said. New Mexico was late to extend eligibility for foster care services from age 18 to 21, which has helped youth in other states avoid prison and homelessness.

New Mexico’s 27 percent increase in its homeless population from 2018 to 2019 was the highest in the nation, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Additionally, until last year, a state law made it legal to prosecute youth under 18 for prostitution “instead of treating them as survivors of sex trafficking,” Blalock said. His agency’s new focus on such survivors includes the rollout of a tool that screens children for human and sex trafficking risks.

The agency was recently awarded up to $1 million from the Bernalillo County Commission to open the state’s only Shelter and Family Empowerment (SAFE) House for sex-trafficked teens.

“Currently, we have zero beds in the state dedicated to victims of child sex trafficking,” Blalock said.

And in an effort to align with the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which aims to keep Native American children with Native families, the agency created an all-woman, all-Native American team and the state’s first Indian Child Welfare Act court. According to Special Master Catherine Begaye, the 2nd Judicial District Court will administer the program, adjudicating foster care, pre-adoptive and adoption placement cases for indigenous children.

Children, Youth and Families plans to double the capacity of its infant mental health program, which served some 200 babies in 2018, none of whom were rereferred to protective services. The plan is to also expand to 13 pueblos and the Navajo Nation, as well as Bernalillo, Lea, San Juan, San Miguel, Sandoval and Valencia counties.

These changes are a direct reflection of a sweeping culture shift across multiple state departments, Blalock said.

“The governor says that the problem-solvers have to work together or they’re going to get fired,” he said. “That’s all tongue in cheek and everyone laughs and then everyone collaborates because they actually like to work together. I think that’s starting to seep downward, which is awesome.”

A governor who means business

Lujan Grisham, who views an improved and family-involved public education system as a life raft for children who might be floating toward foster care, isn’t hesitant about cleaning house when her standards aren’t met.

In July, she fired Karen Trujillo, her original pick for public education secretary, for underperforming during her six months on the job. Three weeks later, the governor announced 39-year-old Ryan Stewart as the first African American to lead the Public Education Department. He came from Philadelphia, where he worked in the public schools and as a regional executive director at Partners in School Innovation, a national nonprofit that supports low-income students of color.

Lujan Grisham also is trying to fund a recently revived Behavioral Health Collaborative via a $28 million budget request. The collective, composed of CYFD, the Department of Health, the Human Services Division, and Aging and Long-Term Services, hopes to house victims of sex trafficking, deliver services for families struggling with generational patterns of substance use and offer intensive, “high fidelity wraparound” mental health supports for youth and families.

State leaders could be aided by a robust cash flow from oil and gas revenues. Lawmakers are debating a $7.6 billion budget for fiscal year 2021, a 7.5 percent increase over the current year. Much of the budget increase is earmarked for educational programs.

Blalock says there are about 2,500 youth in state care in New Mexico. “You’re talking about an imminently fixable problem to a certain extent in New Mexico. If we’re talking about fixing child abuse or poverty, then no. That’s way more difficult and will take a longer period of time to have a real impact,” Blalock said. “But as far as putting certain systems in place to keep children safer to start getting better results to help support families so that they’re able to have better outcomes, it’s just an incredible opportunity.

“If we’re not successful, we only have us to blame.”

This story is part of a Youth Today project on foster care in New Mexico. It’s made possible in part by the May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust.

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