Less than a month after New Mexico’s child welfare agency announced it was increasing low-income families’ access to child care assistance under the settlement of a class-action complaint against its former chief, the department is proposing a big step back.

The agency earlier this month said it had agreed to allow parents with income of up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level to get help paying for day care and preschool. In a notice posted this week, however, the state Children, Youth and Families Department says new regulations would cap income eligibility at 160 percent of the poverty level — or about $41,200 for a family of four.

A public hearing on the change is scheduled July 8 in Santa Fe.

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said Wednesday a lack of funds for the aid program drove the decision to tighten eligibility requirements.

“At the end of the day, at the end of the legislative session, we didn’t get the funding we needed,” he said, noting Lujan Grisham’s administration, which took office Jan. 1, inherited the settlement from the previous administration.

An attorney for plaintiffs in the case, filed in state District Court in Santa Fe in September 2018, agreed that insufficient funds were to blame for the change. Still, she called the agency’s plans to reduce the income cap for child care aid disheartening.

“We were really disappointed to see eligibility would be lowered,” said Maria Griego, a supervising attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

The Albuquerque-based nonprofit represented plaintiffs in the suit against the Children, Youth and Families secretary at the time, Monique Jacobson, accusing her agency of wrongly denying aid to some families in need in New Mexico — a state with one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation — and failing to disclose how it calculates required copayments for day care and preschool costs.

They also criticized the agency for imposing copayments that exceed federal guidelines and for altering eligibility rules without a public process.

Under an order by state District Judge Matthew Wilson, made public in early May, the agency agreed, among other changes, to raise the income cap for child care aid from 150 percent of the federal poverty level to 200 percent.

In a news release on the settlement earlier this month, Brian Blalock, the agency’s new Cabinet secretary, called it “a step in the right direction.”

But wider eligibility wasn’t sustainable at the current funding level, Stelnicki said. “We’re going to keep pushing to raise it higher in the future,” he said.

Griego said proposed regulations for child care assistance also fall short in others ways.

The copayment scale — calculated by family size and income, and hours of care needed for a child — is more clearly explained under the new rules than in the past, she said, but the agency still doesn’t define how it determined the base copayment level.

The federal government recommends copays for child care be set at no more than 7 percent of a family’s monthly income, a level considered affordable.

“As far as we know, CYFD has not done any studies … to see if these copayments are affordable,” Griego said.

Charlie Moore-Pabst, a spokesman for the Children, Youth and Families Department, said the agency is only in the initial stages of revising its child care regulations, and that the proposed income cap of 160 percent of the federal poverty level is just a starting point.

“There will be opportunity for public comment and public hearings on the matter, so the rate is subject to change,” Moore-Pabst said in a statement.

Griego urged families to attend the public hearing in Santa Fe on the rule changes — scheduled for 11 a.m. July 28 at Apodaca Hall, 1120 Paseo de Peralta — and testify about how they would be affected.

She also said families with incomes between 160 percent and 200 percent of the poverty level who need child care should sign up for assistance now — before more stringent eligibility rules go into effect.

City Desk editor

Cynthia is a City Desk editor for The Santa Fe New Mexican and was formerly The New Mexican's copy desk chief. She covers a number of topics including child welfare issues.