Two state departments and advocates for foster children announced they have reached an out-of-court agreement they believe will create sweeping reforms for kids in state care.
The state Human Services Department and the Children, Youth and Families Department said they have agreed to improve conditions raised in a 2018 federal lawsuit. In the settlement, the agencies say they will implement a variety of changes that range from improvement in training and early screenings, to placing Native children in their own communities, to establishing behavioral health care for kids.
CYFD Secretary Brian Blalock said the settlement was a major step in a much-needed overhaul.
“Once we got on the same page, we really just had to figure out the accountability structure and what that was going to look like,” he said. “That just doesn’t happen in lawsuits.”
According to the settlement, both departments have deadlines over the next three years to build the system. The plans will be monitored by three child welfare experts chosen by both parties.
In 2018, lawyers for 13 children in the care of New Mexico brought a lawsuit against the state, alleging the child welfare system’s practices “systematically re-traumatize vulnerable children.”
They accused the agencies of failing to provide foster children with adequate mental and physical health services. In the lawsuit, foster children described being cycled through a series of unsafe, unstable environments, including residential treatment facilities, emergency shelters, state agency offices or insufficiently trained families.
Children also described being abused, drugged, physically restrained and denied behavioral health care.
Many of the children described “secondary” trauma: sexual or physical abuse in care; and the constant uprooting, which the lawsuit said were department actions that led to “tragic and enduring consequences.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs said the settlement is a “paradigm shift” of recognizing the long-term impacts of trauma on children, and building a modern system to give both families and children access to services.
This resolution is unlike other settlements, lawyers for plaintiffs said, because it doesn’t require court oversight. There also are no monetary damages for the plaintiffs.
Nancy Koenigsberg, a senior lawyer at Disability Rights New Mexico, said the deal was hammered out between the parties to overhaul the system as fast as possible, as litigation often takes years.
“The damage that is done to a child can last for the duration of a child’s life, unless we take the steps and not only provide support for the child, but families,” said Koenigsberg, who represented the plaintiffs.