Brian Blalock, Cabinet secretary of the state’s child welfare agency, reported Wednesday to lawmakers progress he and his staff have made in dramatically reducing a backlog of child protective services investigations and increasing the number of children in state custody who are placed in the care of relatives.
Still, some lawmakers on the Legislative Finance Committee raised concerns about transparency in the department and other long-standing issues.
The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, which oversees the state’s juvenile justice services, foster care program and behavioral health for kids, has been under scrutiny following news about its use earlier this year of an encrypted messaging app called Signal and a recent whistleblower lawsuit alleging wrongful termination of workers who raised concerns about the app and other practices.
The agency also faced lawsuits earlier this year over how it handled of a case involving four children who were returned to parents accused of being abusive, and was sued over the death of a boy who had been referred to the agency’s protective services division numerous times.
Blalock told the Legislative Finance Committee over 3,000 overdue protective services investigations that remained backlogged in January 2019, when he came on board, were reduced to under 100 by April 2021.
He also discussed the department’s emphasis on improving its rate of so-called kinship care placements for children who are removed from a home due to abuse or neglect. Being placed with relatives, Blalock said, is often far less traumatic for a child than living with other foster parents.
Initial placement with relatives rose to 43 percent of children in state custody in 2021 from just 4 percent in 2019, he said.
“That experience of removing a child from someone they know and placing them with someone they don’t know is an adverse childhood experience,” Blalock said. “Often a way we can avoid that is placing them with someone they know, and often that’s Grandma.”
The agency continues to struggle with staffing.
While it has filled vacancies, the number of caseloads for each worker and turnover rates for protective services staff have increased during the pandemic. According to a report, workers average 15.9 cases, nearly six more cases than the target. The turnover rate for protective services staff has averaged 27 percent so far in 2021, which is lower than the rate of 40 percent in 2019 but well above the target goal of 20 percent.
Legislators commended CYFD for its improvements but raised questions about accountability and its communication with the public and lawmakers.
“I do think that there is real bipartisan concern with transparency and some of the things that go on in CYFD,” said Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs.
“This is not just your administration,” she added. “We’ve
had that conversation that for many years there have been problems. ...
“What I hear from my providers that they don’t think children are safe if they’re under CYFD care. That really concerns me,” Kernan added.
Another lawmaker questioned data regarding the number of deaths of children with ties to CYFD.
Blalock reported to the committee there were five deaths of children in state custody last year, up from three in 2019.
Among deaths of children who had “some CYFD involvement” within two years, data show, 77 perfect of infant fatalities (under 1 year) were sleep-related, while 43 percent of youth fatalities (11-17) were gun-related and 38 percent were suicides.
Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, pushed for more information on deaths of children who returned to their parents after CYFD custody and how much the agency has spent on lawsuits tied to such instances.
Blalock agreed to gather that data for the committee.