Jordan, a foster teen in New Mexico, has lost count of all the places she’s lived in the state, including the streets, since 2016.

“I was going to get adopted, but it didn’t happen. If you don’t get adopted, people just think you’re a mess with all kinds of problems. They just throw us in a group home and then either we age out or we move. To me, that’s how it is,” said Jordan, 17, who asked that her name be changed for this story.

She became homeless because none of her foster homes worked out, she said. While she was in and out of homelessness, Jordan gave birth twice; the state removed the children from her custody.

Some critics say the state’s child protective services agency, the Children, Youth and Families Department, actually makes life harder for the more than 2,000 kids in state custody. A blistering federal lawsuit against the department, filed by Disability Rights New Mexico and the Native American Disability Law Center, says New Mexico’s emotionally shattered — and sometimes physically battered — foster kids are systematically retraumatized in what the suit calls a “broken” and poorly designed system that’s ill-equipped to rehabilitate them.

But a change for the better might be emerging.

During the 2019 New Mexico legislative session, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a number of robust laws intended to reform foster care.

It’s tough to be a child — foster or otherwise — in New Mexico. The nonprofit Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count report, which measures child well-being indicators such as poverty, reading proficiency, substance abuse and teen birth rates, ranked the state dead last in the country in 2017 and 2018. At the same time, the state’s child abuse rate steadily climbed and currently hovers at nearly twice the national average, straining the child welfare agency.

In a June speech in Albuquerque, Lujan Grisham said she hadn’t been able to sleep since she learned that workers in the Children, Youth and Families Department’s Child Protective Services Division are overwhelmed and unable to investigate “hundreds” of referrals for child abuse and neglect allegations.

The department also has been hampered by a dearth of qualified social workers, a lack of adoptive families and a number of child abuse cases, according to court filings.

Spokeswoman Melody Wells said the department has made great strides since Cabinet Secretary Brian Blalock came onboard in January.

“I’ve never heard of or seen a new administration come in and make so many large-scale changes that are actually affecting positive change so quickly,” she said.

One of the agency’s main focus areas is increasing the amount of caseworkers, Wells added.

State Sen. Michael Padilla, an Albuquerque Democrat, knows the state’s foster care system on a personal level — he was in it from infancy to age 14. “I’m very encouraged by where things are going,” he said. “However, we have a long way to go.”

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Among legislation Lujan Grisham signed during the 2019 legislative session was a bill expanding eligibility for foster care services to age 21 from 18. She also approved expanded eligibility of tuition cost waivers for former state foster youth attending New Mexico’s postsecondary institutions and passed a law that gives youth in care partial earned credits if they transfer from one secondary school to another.

Additionally, funds from the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, introduced by a number of members of Congress, including New Mexico Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland, became available Oct. 1. The child welfare reform statute allows states and tribes to direct federal money to family and child services in an effort to keep kids with their families. In decades past, such funding was only available after a child was removed from their family.

A number of state lawmakers and child advocacy organizations are also encouraged by Blalock’s quick-acting reforms.

Wells said the Children, Youth and Families Department recently began a program that gives employees a stipend for a social work degree and created an information portal that helps Albuquerque police officers when they’re responding to a domestic dispute call involving a child.

Additionally, the agency recently received a grant from the Bernalillo County Commission to establish the state’s only safehouse for young victims of human trafficking.

“Foster youth are much more targeted by traffickers, who are savvy and know how to watch for young people that don’t feel connected to adults in a healthy way, as well as young people who are used to abuse and neglect,” Wells said.

Despite systemic challenges, Padilla is encouraged that the state’s foster care system is heading toward a healthier incarnation.

He’d like to see closer controls and relationships between caseworkers and foster children, much like what he experienced as a foster youth.

Padilla, 46, was an infant when his caseworker, who’s now 84, came into his life. The two still keep in touch.

“I remember how he would pick us up in his green truck and take us to get ice cream and ask us questions and work with us. We would see him regularly, and I’ve known him this whole time,” Padilla said. “I stop in and check on him. He’s a really good human being. He was probably one of the best male role models I had as a child.”

Jordan says she eventually jumped through all the hoops at the child welfare agency to regain custody of her children. Though she’s back on her feet, one minor catastrophe could again send her life spiraling out of control.

For now, an optimistic Jordan is focused on attaining a GED certificate so she can work, provide for her family and avoid a return to the streets.

“From what I’ve been through, I actually feel like it was a good thing because it made me even stronger and makes me a better mom,” she said. “I don’t want to put my kids in that situation.”

The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, based at Kennesaw State University near Atlanta, covers juvenile justice and related issues nationally.

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