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New Mexico lags in mandated foster care reforms

By Karen Coates / Photos by Ramsay De Give
Two years after New Mexico agreed to overhaul its foster care system in response to a lawsuit claiming it systematically re-traumatizes children in its care, the state lags on its commitments and is struggling to enact the required reforms. 

The settlement of the Kevin S. complaint, named for one of the plaintiffs, was lauded as groundbreaking when it was announced in March 2020 for its promise to create a “trauma-responsive” system of care that prioritized placing children in secure family settings.

But child welfare advocates say the state’s delays in implementing many of the settlement requirements puts thousands of children in state custody at risk of further harm.

Critics question the state’s practice of temporarily placing some foster children in offices and in out-of-state facilities, which the agreement prohibits except in extraordinary circumstances. The state has even argued that it is not required to review the safety of out-of-state facilities before sending its charges there. 

New Mexico lags in mandated foster care reforms: Middle-aged woman with long auburn hair wearing black blazer and top stands outside in front of modern tan brick and white building looking into camera.
Bette Fleishman, an attorney and executive director of Pegasus Legal Services for Children, represents two of the plaintiffs in the Kevin S. case. She says the state must do more to meet its commitments to children in its care. (Ramsay De Give)

Meanwhile, the state struggles to create a sufficiently large, diverse pool of qualified foster families and caseworkers. And it has not yet met  many of its obligations to provide more culturally appropriate support to Native children in state custody. 

“It’s just not acceptable at this stage,” said Bette Fleishman, an attorney and executive director of Pegasus Legal Services for Children, who represents two of the plaintiffs. 

Several settlement deadlines were extended due to the pandemic, and “that was always the excuse,” Fleishman said. “’COVID, COVID, COVID — can’t do it.’ And you know what? It’s not OK anymore.” 

The state knows it’s behind — and the new head of child welfare has vowed to do better. 

Barbara Vigil, a former state Supreme Court judge, took the department’s helm in October, just weeks before an independent oversight team called the co-neutrals issued its first progress report on the settlement’s implementation — a biting assessment that found fewer than 25 percent of settlement targets had been met. 

“It was horrible,” Fleishman said. 

The department has since “investigated, identified, and is addressing some internal impediments… and other management issues that may have resulted in unnecessary bottlenecks and communication challenges,” Vigil said. But she acknowledged the state has fallen short.

“It’s not to say that we have failed, but that we have not reached success in the timeline that they would have hoped,” she said.

The co-neutrals’ report acknowledged the setbacks posed by the pandemic and the broad scope of the reforms required by the final settlement agreement. 

“New Mexico is still very much in the beginning stages,” they wrote of the required systemic changes. 

While some new policies and practices have been developed, the co-neutrals said they have been unable to validate many of those reforms at the time of their writing, noting skepticism from community advocates who question evidence of the state’s progress and transparency.

Furthermore, the oversight team said the state failed to provide complete, consistent data on several important metrics, including how children entered and exited the system, and the number of staff needed to meet caseload standards. 

The co-neutrals’ report acknowledges state leaders’ willingness to work toward necessary reform.

New Mexico lags in mandated foster care reforms: Middle-aged woman with short dark hair and glasses wearing black pant suit and light blue blouse stands next to to reflective window in office so we see her reflection in the glass.
Children, Youth and Families Department Secretary Barbara Vigil took over the agency just weeks before the first progress report on the Kevin S. settlement. Advocates have expressed hope that Vigil, a former state Supreme Court judge, can turn the troubled department around. (Ramsay De Give)

Vigil said she and Human Services Department Secretary David Scrase are committed to developing and implementing a new child welfare system “built on a foundation of understanding and acknowledging the impact that…the state has upon the trauma that kids experience when they come into our system.” 

The settlement’s primary accountability mechanism is the publication of regular public reports, and the possibility of mediation and arbitration if the two sides are unable to resolve their disputes.

The plaintiffs are prepared to pursue those avenues, if necessary.

“These kids deserve better,” Fleishman said. “They really deserve better.”

The initial case, Kevin S., et al. v. Blalock and Scrase, was filed Sept. 22, 2018, on behalf of 13 children between the ages of 1 and 17, and two nonprofits. 

The complaint accused the state of failing to screen foster children for trauma or provide appropriate therapeutic services. The medical community widely acknowledges that such trauma significantly impacts brain activity, function and development in children. 

The lawsuit was dismissed in the settlement, which requires dozens of reforms under four broad categories: improving foster care placements, meeting Native children’s unique needs, creating a trauma-responsive system of care, and ensuring access to proper behavioral health services. 

Appropriate placements

“The biggest concerns are inappropriate placements,” said Jesselyn Friley, staff attorney for the pro bono Public Counsel, who was part of the Kevin S. litigation and implementation teams. 

Under the agreement, New Mexico has committed to building a system that matches children with the least restrictive, most family-like placements possible. The co-neutrals’ report, which relied on data through Sept. 1, 2021, outlined 12 targets related to placements; one was met past the deadline, and all others were either not met or incomplete. 

According to CYFD data, 1,978 children were in state custody at the end of 2020. Of those, 85 percent lived in family settings — nearly half with non-relative foster families. Just over 6 percent were in congregate care facilities like group homes. 

During 2020, at least 117 children had at least one placement in a hotel, motel, office or out-of-state facility. The original lawsuit alleged that such practices locked foster children into “a vicious cycle of declining physical, mental and behavioral health.” 

The settlement stipulated that as of Dec. 1, 2020, “No child under 18 will be placed in any hotel, motel, out-of-state provider, office of a contractor, or state agency office unless in extraordinary circumstances necessary to protect the safety and security of the child.” 

But it’s still happening. 

As of April 2022, CYFD Public Information Officer Robert Johnson said the department had a total of 1,777 children in state custody; of those, 26 were placed in out-of-state facilities and another 91 were in other out-of-state settings, such as foster family homes. 

The co-neutrals’ report had faulted the state for failing to provide evidence that child welfare officials reviewed out-of-state providers’ safety records, and for at one point arguing that doing so was outside its purview.

Johnson said the department is addressing those concerns. 

“We are very committed to ensuring that every out-of-state facility that houses our youth is a safe and secure placement,” he said. He added that the state is developing a process to assess each facility that shelters New Mexico children and noted that each child’s social worker or case manager visits the child in person every month.

Vigil also said CYFD is forming multidisciplinary teams to evaluate the need to send any particular child out of state. As secretary, she has the final say, based on the team recommendation. 

“I approve every out-of-state placement,” she said. She cited an example of a young girl she recently approved for a Texas facility that has a particular treatment program that could meet her medical needs.

But according to the co-neutrals’ report, such placements are “no longer allowed … unless CYFD has validated the child would not be safe or secure in any other placement in New Mexico.”  State child welfare officials say the state doesn’t have sufficient behavioral health services. Many foster children have “acute needs that cannot be met with existing in-state providers or with our own initiatives,” CYFD spokesperson Charlie Moore-Pabst said.

Fleishman recognizes the problem, too. She said CYFD often just doesn’t know what to do with traumatized children in its care; somewhere along the line, the department started shipping kids out of state — to facilities in Colorado, Texas, Utah.

“It was convenient,” she said. “It just became the practice.” 

One of her clients was sent to a Colorado facility that was eventually closed, she said. Investigators later uncovered 243 reports of suspected abuse, neglect, excessive restraint, inadequate nutrition and other harms. 

“They found a young girl sitting in the closet eating her own skin,” Fleishman said.

In addition to out-of-state placements, Vigil also acknowledged that some foster children are still temporarily sleeping in agency offices “as the last option.” 

“Office stays are really the consequence of not having adequate behavioral health services for that child at that moment,” she said. 

Advocates say they hear stories of children sleeping on bean bags in offices where the lights stay on all night — no kitchen, no shower. 

But Vigil painted a different picture. “When we say a child is staying in an office, it’s not like they’re sleeping on the floor,” she said. “There is actually privacy, there’s a bed, there’s food…it’s safe.” 

Sometimes, children are sent to an office when no other option is immediately available, she said, or when teenagers refuse to move. Under state law, children 14 and above have the right to reject a placement. 

Fleishman said the state needs to examine why this happens. It’s often because the placement they are offered is “a wrong place for them to go,” she said.

Maybe it’s a residential treatment facility that doesn’t jibe with the child, or a foster family with bad chemistry, or a home in another culture. Whatever the reason, she said, it’s the state’s obligation to provide services that meet each child’s needs, even if it takes extra work or outside expertise. 

New Mexico lags in mandated foster care reforms: Older white-haired man with gray beard and silver glasses wearing navy sweater and blue jeans sits with hands in lap on wooden stirs with wrought iron railing.
George Davis, the former head of psychiatry for New Mexico’s child welfare department and a member of the settlement implementation team, said the system’s flaws were decades in the making. “I’ve been doing this since the ‘80s and watched this happen,” he said. (Ramsay De Give)

George Davis, CYFD’s former head of psychiatry and a member of the settlement implementation team, said secure placements are “essential” for a child’s healthy development. He linked the dearth of appropriate placements to years of structural problems at the department. 

“They hadn’t planned well; they hadn’t thought it through; they hadn’t developed a network of foster parents who are durable, well-informed, well-educated, and well-supported,” he said. “That’s the central failure of this system…. I’ve been doing this since the ‘80s and watched this happen.” 

Despite its shortcomings, he sympathizes with the department’s leaders and staff.

“There’s nothing harder than managing a system with children who have been abused and neglected,” he said. To do the job right, he said the department needs an overhaul. 

“There’s no tweaking the system,” Davis said. “You have to change the way you do business.” 

As it is, many foster children bounce from one place to the next, obliterating the sense of stability and security that children need for proper development.

“It’s not uncommon for me to talk to a kid who’s been in 20 or even 30 different foster placements,” Davis said.

Felicia Cater, 18, knows what that’s like. She wasn’t part of the Kevin S. lawsuit, but her experience of constant upheaval in the system exemplifies the trauma that many foster youth endure. 

Cater was six months old when she first entered the system. Since the age of 12, she has never stopped moving: relative to relative; shelter to shelter; from treatment foster care to safe youth housing; from North Dakota to Oklahoma to cities across New Mexico. 

“I never fully unpack my crap — ever,” she said. “CYFD has a tendency of not telling you when they’re coming to pick you up, and so if your stuff isn’t together, you’re essentially doomed.”

New Mexico lags in mandated foster care reforms: Young woman with dark hair pulled back and bright red lipstick wearing black, v-neck dress, stands outside with arms crossed next to white stucco building's wooden window.
Felicia Cater says her unstable childhood in state custody has left her unable to trust easily. She wants to be a cop and a therapist to help others. (Ramsay De Give)

Now that she has aged out of the system, Cater is living with her biological mother again.  The more she learns about her birth family, she said, the more she doubts the necessity of her original removal. She wonders how her life might have fared if the state had found a way to keep her family intact. 

“Because of my past, it’s extremely hard for me to trust people,” she said. She calls herself “judgy,” making split-second decisions about a person’s character. 

“I usually have a very, very small social circle,” she said. 

But her past has also made her empathetic. She tries to help others facing difficulties because, “I don’t want them to go through the pain that I went through,” she said. That’s why she wants to be a cop and a therapist — to do a better job than the ones she has encountered; to be the adult who listens. 

Native children

Native foster children face even greater challenges. New Mexico is home to 23 federally recognized tribes and pueblos, each with its own culture and traditions. 

Nationally, Indigenous families are four times more likely to have their children placed in foster care  than white families. In New Mexico, a shortage of Native foster families means those children are often placed outside their tribal communities. 

“It further removes them from their community and from their culture,” said Therese Yanan, executive director of the Native American Disability Law Center, one of the Kevin S. plaintiffs. 

New Mexico lags in mandated foster care reforms: Older woman with short, curly, dark grey and silver hair wearing dark gray turtleneck sweater sits at table in front of bookcase with hands on table and fingers intertwined.
Therese Yanan, executive director of the Native American Disability Law Center, one of the plaintiffs in the Kevin S. case. Yanan said New Mexico needs to communicate with Native families and tribes to ensure culturally appropriate support. (Ramsay De Give)

The state has made some progress on these issues. CYFD created a formal Tribal Affairs Unit, and the state’s first Native family court has had success keeping more Indigenous children in their own communities. New Mexico also recently passed a state version of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which is under threat at the US Supreme Court.

However, the state had not met settlement mandates for ensuring access to Native ceremonies, recruiting Native foster families, collecting and analyzing data on Native children’s needs and training CYFD staff by the time the co-neutrals wrote their report.

For example, Yanan said one of her clients, a Navajo girl, wanted a coming-of-age ceremony called a Kinaaldá, and it’s “virtually impossible” because there is no consistent system for arranging such functions in foster care.

Yanan said CYFD needs to communicate better with tribal communities and “listen to families,” especially when it comes to recruiting Native foster parents. Language, lack of Internet access on reservations and differences in communication styles are all barriers to finding, recruiting and licensing a healthy cohort of Native foster families.

Johnson said the department is using formal surveys, focus groups with youth and families, and consultations with tribes and pueblos to strengthen foster family recruitment efforts. CYFD is also relying on a new tool called Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths with the aim of finding “more tailor-made” placements in a “more child-centered model of care,” Johnson added. 

Responding to trauma and ensuring access to proper behavioral services

Foster children experience multiple traumas — the initial trauma that prompted removal from the home, the removal itself, and often, as the Kevin S. lawsuit alleged, subsequent traumas experienced within the system. 

“When you disrupt the primary caretaker relationship, that is the means by which humans are designed to develop,” said Davis. 

Removing a child from home is so destructive, there’s a growing national movement to abolish the child welfare system entirely. Proponents say the focus should be on root causes, often tied to poverty and structural racism.

Experts characterize trauma as the psychological and neurological effects of difficult experiences that result in physical, psychological, social and emotional troubles in the aftermath. 

“The younger a child is … the more severe the trauma, the more it’s going to affect them going forward, because the development is cumulative,” said Friley of Public Counsel. 

The consequences are staggering, putting traumatized youth at greater risk of chronic health conditions, substance abuse, incarceration and a shorter lifespan. 

CYFD has never had the expertise it needs to properly identify and treat such traumas, experts say. But that could change. 

In February, the state legislature granted the Human Services Department a $20 million special appropriation for developing behavioral health services equipped to deal with children and trauma. 

The Kevin S. settlement also aims to bring more science into New Mexico’s foster care system: new medication protocols, new screenings to find and treat early childhood trauma and workers trained to do so. 

To that end, the state has implemented two new Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths tools, designed to screen and assess childhood trauma and individual care needs — some of the settlement targets that have been met.

New leadership, more funding could help meet settlement targets

New Mexico child welfare advocates are hopeful that Vigil can turn the department around

New Mexico lags in mandated foster care reforms: Middle-aged woman with short brown hair wearing black pantsuit and light blue blouse with black frame glasses sits with hands intertwined in lap on turquoise couch in front of brown wood bokcases.
Barbara Vigil, who heads New Mexico’s child welfare department, said kids and families must be better off for having had contact with her department. Representatives for the plaintiffs in the Kevin S. settlement say she has improved communication since assuming her role.(Ramsay De Give)

“She’s really been good about opening up lines of communication,” Fleishman said, noting that CYFD is now meeting regularly with Kevin S. team members. “We don’t agree on everything yet — we probably never will, but just that she’s made that effort and said she wants to meet with us every month, I think is a big plus.”

Still, the department needs a profound shift in the way it works, child welfare advocates say. 

“It is a massive job,” said Friley. “This just requires a large culture change, a significant investment on the part of the departments to accept what they’ve agreed to, and to carry out those things.”

“In some cases, we get the sense that they don’t really know how to do what they need to do,” she added.

For example, under Kevin S., the department agreed to lower the overall employee workload so that caseworkers were not stretched too thin to provide quality service. 

But the co-neutrals expressed frustration that, despite specific and repeated requests, the state did not set a caseload standard or adequate plan by the time of their writing. 

Since then, Moore-Pabst said the agency has set a goal of no more than 12 cases per caseworker per month. The definition of case varies depending on context, but statewide averages ranged between roughly 15 and 19 as of December. 

To help achieve this goal, the department has secured additional funding from the state, and will also benefit from state employee salary increases across the board. 

“These jobs are hard,” Vigil said. “Because these are people who are trying to help a family in crisis and that takes a tremendous amount of commitment and dedication and patience in situations that are uncomfortable, that are tragic, that are difficult.”

Overall, the legislature gave the CYFD general fund operating budget a $16 million  boost for a total of $230 million in the 2023 fiscal year, all of which will directly or indirectly aid settlement targets, Vigil said. 

“The whole approach to child welfare under my leadership, as secretary, ultimately rests on the commitment that kids and families must be better off in their lives for having had contact with the department,” she said. 

To Kevin S. and all the other plaintiffs; to Cater and all the children in the system today, Vigil has a message:

“Their lives in the system will not be in vain,” she said. “Their lives will teach us how to do things better.”

This story originally published April 11, 2022, on Youth Today.

‘Without language, we are nothing’: New Mexico to pay Native-language teachers equally

By Murat Oztaskin

When New Mexico house representative Derrick Lente was growing up in the eighties and nineties, he was immersed in the indigenous Southern Tiwa dialect spoken by his family. 

He heard it in Sandia Pueblo, north of Albuquerque, where he stayed with his mom during the week, and in Isleta Pueblo, south of Albuquerque, where he stayed with his father over the weekends. 

His parents had to be his Tiwa teachers because there were none in the schools of nearby Bernalillo. And they taught him, he said, that “without language, we are nothing.”

Today, students in the same school system can study many of the eight indigenous languages of New Mexico’s 23 tribal entities. It’s an educational focus that was reinforced earlier this year when the state legislature unanimously passed House Bill 60, a law that classifies for the first time the state’s 155 certified educators of Native languages and culture as entry-level teachers.

Previously, the pay of Native-language educators was decided district by district, in an adhoc system that saw some paid as teaching assistants despite doing the work of teachers, including lesson planning and curricula development. In the 2020-2021 school year — the most recent numbers provided by New Mexico’s Public Education Department — Native-language educators made on average less than $30,000 a year, with several full-time teachers bringing in less than $20,000. 

Coupled with a new law that raises entry-level teachers’ salaries, House Bill 60 — which was signed into law by the state’s democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, in March — ensures that all New Mexico teachers with Native-language certification will make a minimum of $50,000 a year, starting this fall.

Educators gain such certification after the tribes to which they’re enrolled recommend them to the state as experts in their tribes’ language and culture.

“H.B. 60 brings to the surface language revitalization, particularly Native-language revitalization in our state, as inherent and core to educational success,” said Gwen Perea Warniment, who until this month was the education department’s deputy secretary of teaching, learning, and assessment. She now serves as the director of New Mexico’s Legislative Education Study Committee, a body within the legislature that crafts education-related laws.

She added that for the state’s Native students, education in their indigenous languages and cultures is critical for their success. 

“If education and societal wellness, community wellness, is linked — and we assume it is — then you must attend to who you are as an identity, as a group, as a community,” she said. 


New Mexico’s public-education system has routinely ranked as the country’s worst or close to it. It has the lowest high-school graduation rate of any state (around 70 percent) and by many standards the worst academic performance.

In 2014, the condition of the state’s public education system spurred a consolidated lawsuit called Yazzie/Martinez vs. State of New Mexico, in which a collection of plaintiffs sued the state. In 2018, a district-court judge found that New Mexico had violated its own constitution by failing to provide sufficient and uniform public education. 

Within this underperforming system, Native American students and English-language learners, two of four student populations the court deemed to be “at risk,” have been particularly disadvantaged, owing to an education that is inadequate in its cultural responsiveness. 

The court concluded that “the state had not developed effective educational systems for Native American students,” said Melissa Candelaria, the education director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represented some plaintiffs in the consolidated lawsuit.. 

Candelaria added that the state was found to “not provide Native American students the necessary programs and services that meet their unique cultural and linguistic needs,” as outlined in New Mexico’s Indian Education Act, a 2003 law intended to furnish success among Native American students. Nor, she said, did the state “allocate sufficient funding to school districts to implement the law” themselves. 

Perea Warniment, formerly of the education department, said that H.B. 60 begins to tackle “an effort to honestly and entirely address the Indian Education Act,” a major purpose of which is to ensure “maintenance of native languages.” 

Perea Warniment is hopeful of H.B. 60’s potential impact on the recruitment and retention of Native-language teachers. In addition to bolstering language offerings, increasing the number of Native teachers would also make the education system more representative of the communities it serves: 10 percent of New Mexico students are Native American, but only 3 percent of its teachers are. 

It could also help ease a longstanding problem of recruitment and retention among all educators across the state. In 2021, there were 1,048 teacher vacancies, according to a report from New Mexico State University — about a 5 percent shortage.

In early May, Lujan Grisham’s office released a draft of the first state plan to directly address compliance with the Yazzie/Martinez ruling, and opened it up for public input. (The court ruling had mandated that the state take immediate steps toward compliance by April, 2019.)

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty said the state’s Yazzie/Martinez action plan was short on specifics and that it “doesn’t provide a good roadmap with details such as required funding and responsible entities to implement the plan.”

Still, she said, H.B. 60 may have a “huge impact” on its own. 

Education in New Mexico “needs to be relevant, responsive, and respectful to the languages and cultures of our Native children, and H.B. 60 helps to ensure the maintenance and continuation of our indigenous languages,” said Candelaria, who grew up in the San Felipe Pueblo and, like Lente, wasn’t able to study her indigenous language, Keres, in public schools in Bernalillo. 

“Native language is really the heart of our culture, our way of life, our identity, our connection to the land and to our ancestors,” she said.


H.B. 60 is the product of a grassroots, tribal-based movement. When he first entered office in 2017, Lente helped organize a set of community forums to understand what changes Native communities felt were most needed. 

“This wasn’t meant to be a high-level policy discussion,” Lente said. “We had these meetings with parents, with students, with tribal leaders, with education advocates — with kind of the lay people, if you will.” 

What resulted is the Tribal Remedy Framework, a comprehensive plan endorsed by all 23 of New Mexico’s tribal nations to push forward “five pieces of legislation which seek to focus in on how to transform education for Native American children,” Lente said. 

The first legislative contribution was House Bill 250, which passed the New Mexico legislature unanimously in 2019. The bill revised the Indian Education Act to codify the Tribal Remedy Framework’s aims, including requiring needs assessments for Native-impacted school districts. 

In doing so, it sought to establish a trust responsibility, in the federal mold, between the state and its tribal nations, Lente said, as a way to “create teeth within the law that will now enable Native American tribes to hold the state accountable.” 

H.B. 60 is the second legislative contribution. Native languages and “cultural competency” commanding greater focus in schools is crucial, Lente said. 

“Our students learn differently than those in other places in the world, and so utilizing how we learn best was going to be how we were going to change the system,” he said.

The rest of the Tribal Remedy Framework concerns addressing infrastructure gaps in Native communities—including internet, transportation and school buildings — and building up program capacities within tribal education departments.

Yazzie/Martinez ruling mandates that the state ensure all its students are “college or career ready.” But Lente said that, for Native students especially, a culturally relevant education can also affect civic readiness.

Understanding or mastering an indigenous language can foster “the ability to be a positive contributor to your Pueblo or tribal nation,” he said. For Native children who live “in two worlds,” he added, feeling a sense of purpose and place within their tribal community can help foster those same feelings of belonging and confidence outside of it. 

“If you don’t have that capacity, if you don’t have that confidence, and if you don’t see yourself represented in mainstream America . . . you just feel invisible,” he said. “And that’s where our students falter.”

This story originally published June 13, 2022, on Youth Today.

New federal immigration policy offers easier path to legal residency for some young migrants

By Jo Lutz

Jocelyn Michelle Cruz Rivera, 17, said goodbye to her mother and left Guatemala City on Jan. 31, 2022. She and a dozen other migrants traveled first to a house on the Guatemala side of the Mexican border, then to the southern Mexico state of Chiapas. After staying about a month at a crowded Chiapas motel, they piled into trucks and drove north to Mexicali, just across the border from Calexico, California.

Once the sky was dark, they were driven to a border crossing marked only by a natural rock formation. She and other migrants scrambled across the rocks into the U.S. 

Soon after, Border Patrol agents apprehended them.

“They said ‘Welcome to the U.S., you are safe now,’” Jocelyn said. 

But it is unclear what opportunity and security await Jocelyn in the U.S.

New federal policies that took effect last month now offer some immigrant children protection from deportation and an easier path to legal residency. However, full details on the extent of that protection have yet to be released. And many young immigrants like Jocelyn will continue to face the dual challenges of coping with traumatic experiences in their home countries or along their journeys, while planning for their uncertain futures in the U.S.

The changes to the Special Immigrant Juvenile program, a 1990 program intended as a humanitarian path to lawful residency for immigrant children and youth who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by at least one parent, were announced earlier this year. 

The changes make it easier for young immigrants to apply for the special status. And once their petition has been approved — the first step towards legal residency — they now will generally be protected from deportation and can apply for work permits.

SIJS status: A teenager sits on a wooden bench in front of a carnival ferris wheel
Jocelyn Michelle Cruz Rivera, 17, left her mother behind in Guatemala when she entered the U.S. earlier this year. She now lives with family members in Norman, Okla. (Courtesy of Jocelyn Michelle Cruz Rivera)

Jocelyn, whose father left her family when she was young, intends to apply.

“Today, we are taking action to help immigrant children in the U.S. who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned and offer them protection to help rebuild their lives,” said U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Director Ur M. Jaddou in announcing the changes. “These policies will provide humanitarian protection to vulnerable young people for whom a juvenile court has determined that it is in their best interest to remain in the United States.”

About 44,000 SIJS grantees waited in the backlog as of last April 2021, according to a November 2021 report by the End the SIJS Backlog Coalition. Jocelyn will likely join  this backlog for years even if SIJS is granted, waiting for an opportunity to apply for a visa. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has apprehended 84,235 minors entering the country without a parent or guardian at the U.S.-Mexican land border this fiscal year, a 30.4% increase from this time last year. The agency places them in shelters and then either unites them with family members in the U.S. or places them in foster care.

About 40% of unaccompanied minors at the southwestern border are coming from Guatemala, the highest share of any nationality. 

Jocelyn’s mother, who can’t pay her school fees and has trouble buying food sometimes, paid a smuggler $3,000 to bring Jocelyn to the U.S. in the hope she could pursue education and financial security. She borrowed the money from Jocelyn’s aunt and uncle, who live in Norman, Oklahoma. The uncle, Cesar Salazar, himself emigrated as an unaccompanied minor from Guatemala over 20 years ago. 

After being apprehended by the Border Patrol, Jocelyn was sent to El Rinconcito del Sol, a federally funded, privately operated shelter for unaccompanied girls between the ages of 13-17 in Lake Beach, Florida. During the month she spent at the shelter, she started cutting herself.

In Jocelyn’s telling, she was watching TV and a woman told her she couldn’t watch TV and should go to her room. 

“Since I couldn’t hit or punch the woman, I went to my room and cut myself just so I could do something,” Jocelyn said.

After that, Jocelyn was kept under 24-hour supervision, she said. 

“If I saw something sharp, I just wanted to grab it and cut myself,” she said.

Eventually, she formed a connection with one of the teachers at the shelter, which offers schooling. 

“She treated me like a daughter, gave me advice,” said Jocelyn.

SUS status: several teens lined up along wall some holding books
Migrant teens line up for a class at a facility for babies, children and teens in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. (Eric Gay/AP)

El Rinconcito Vice President AnnaMarie Bena said her organization has been seeing more self-harm in recent months, and that other shelters have reported the same. 

“We don’t know what the cause is, and we don’t know if it is going to last,” she said. “When we see something like this, we have specialists come in.” 

These therapists meet weekly with the girls in small groups to discuss self-harm behavior. All of the girls also have one-on-one sessions with their clinicians. Additional care is provided for girls who harm themselves, including one-on-one supervision, cognitive behavioral therapy, grounding techniques, mindfulness and a “no self-harm agreement” the girls sign, Bena said. 

Self harm and other effects from trauma are not uncommon for young immigrants who apply for SIJS, said Maria Huera Rodriguez, a youth leader for End the SIJS Backlog Coalition.

“[SIJS youth] do face a lot of trauma. Just to be eligible you have to be abandoned, neglected, or abused,” she said.

SIJS status: A young woman sits next to a man on a large, round fountain ledge with a toddler looking into water (left)
Jocelyn Michelle Cruz Rivera, left, now lives with her uncle, Cesar Salazar, right, who emigrated as an unaccompanied minor from Guatemala over 20 years ago. They’re pictured here during a family visit to Disneyland in early 2022. (Courtesy of Jocelyn Michelle Cruz Rivera)

Lidia Valadez, social services provider-manager at Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso, Texas, works with shelters and community service providers to connect unaccompanied minors with post-release support such as medical, legal aid, education and transportation for appointments, including mental health.

“A lot [of unaccompanied minors] come fleeing gang threats, poverty, violence, abuse, rape — not just in their home countries, but also in their journeys,” she said. “These minors need to be educated to know that resources are out there, they’re just very fearful of asking for help.”

Jocelyn now lives in Norman, Oklahoma, with the aunt and uncle who paid for her journey and their child.

Although Jocelyn says she dislikes the cold weather, she does not miss Guatemala. She does miss her mother. She has stopped cutting herself and sees a psychologist once a month. 

Jocelyn started her junior year at the local public high school this May without any English skills or legal status. She says she can’t understand the teachers. Her first week of school, a couple of girls called her negra (Black) and fea (ugly) and tried to drag her down by her hair. After she fought back, she and the students who attacked her were suspended from school.

“We are working with psychologists and all, but we don’t know [the extent of her trauma],” said  her uncle, Cesar Salazar. “She is so angry.” 

This story originally published June 21, 2022, on Youth Today.

Not enough beds, services for homeless youth in New Mexico

By Kaelyn Lynch



Nina Monarco, 17, doesn’t consider herself to be “from” anywhere. 

Before coming to Serenity Mesa, a substance abuse treatment center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the soft spoken, thoughtful teen said she moved every week or two since childhood, bouncing between family members, youth shelters, foster homes, and detention and treatment centers around the state and in neighboring Arizona. 

Monarco said she comes from a family of alcoholics. She entered the child welfare system at age five, when her mother died in a drunk driving accident and her father, also struggling with addiction, was unable to care for Monarco and her brothers. 

The cycle of trauma, neglect, and instability she experienced since then led to her own struggles with alcohol abuse, which landed her at Serenity Mesa. Now, she says he is committed to sobriety in hopes she can eventually get custody of her younger brother, who is in a foster home in Arizona. 

“I’ve been through a lot since I was born,” Monarco said. “But this is the hardest thing I think I’ve ever had to do.” 

Monarco is one of thousands of homeless and housing insecure youth in New Mexico, which consistently ranks toward the bottom among states for child welfare (the Annie E. Casey Foundation is a funder of the Center for Sustainable Journalism). In an under-resourced state with an overburdened system, a tight-knit group of nonprofit service providers have had to get creative to fill the gaps. 

 “I’ve worked in youth homelessness in big cities — New York, Los Angeles, Seattle — and I’ve never seen a community like we have here,” said Steven Serrano, program director at Casa Q, New Mexico’s only specialized shelter for LGBTQ+ youth. 



The exact number of homeless and housing insecure youth is notoriously difficult to estimate.

Data collected by the federal Housing and Urban Development department only includes youth reported by homeless shelters or those on the streets. But experts say this doesn’t account for the many ways youth can experience homelessness. 

According to the Voices of Youth Count, a national survey conducted by the University of Chicago, up to half of homeless youth ages 13 to 25 were exclusively bouncing between temporary accommodations with friends or family. 

“Youth homelessness is largely hidden,” said Forrest Verde-Dudek, housing youth project manager for the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. “They might not be flying a sign on the corner. They might be couch surfing with friends, staying in an abandoned building or living in an overcrowded house with family members without running water or heat.” 

In New Mexico, no official count exists at a state-level, either. 

But the data that does exist points to thousands of vulnerable young people. 

According to a 2020 survey, some 9,500 New Mexico public school students between 11 and 18 were homeless or housing insecure. That number does not account for youth who have dropped out of school or those who are reluctant to self-report homelessness. 

An April 2022 needs assessment for Bernalillo County, which includes Albuquerque, estimated there were between 1,088 and 2,314 housing-insecure individuals between the ages of 15 and 25 in the state’s most populous county. An official from the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department, which conducted the survey with the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, cautioned against extrapolating the report’s findings to the rest of the state. 

“We desperately need a statewide assessment,” said Hilarli Lipton, a senior advisor at CYFD, which oversees the state’s foster care system. 

Youth homelessness presents differently than homelessness in adults, and the definition and age range vary depending on the institution conducting the research. But youth service providers throughout New Mexico agree on one thing when it comes to the data: It’s an undercount. 


New Mexico is rural and under-resourced. It is among the poorest states in the country and ranks near or at the bottom on measures of education, health, and family and community, including 49th for overall child well-being

“When we talk to providers from other states, they’ll casually refer to resources and we’re like, ‘Oh, that must be nice,’” said Catherine Hummel, executive director at Dreamtree Project, a youth shelter and housing program based in the northern New Mexico town of Taos. “It makes us all work together in a way we wouldn’t otherwise do.”

According to Hummel, those resources include a system of host homes, short-term foster care in a home-based setting, medium to long-term placements like group homes and a comprehensive and functional behavioral health system. 

Currently, there are 12 officially licensed youth shelters in the entire state, amounting to 114 beds, many of which are full on any given night. The shelters are run entirely by nonprofits contracted through CYFD, and the lack of resources has birthed a unique, tight-knit relationship among the providers. 

Available beds are tracked in a spread sheet, updated daily, that any child welfare worker in the state can access. Shelter heads have bi-weekly meetings to discuss individual cases and systematic issues, and often hop on triage conference calls to find emergency placements.

While the shelters are meant to be a stopgap, many of the providers have grown into their own youth-serving hubs. 

“We do a really good job of finding a need and creating a program to fill it,” says Samuel Sisneros, street outreach program coordinator for New Day Youth and Family Services in Albuquerque. 

In addition to their shelter, New Day has a drop-in center for homeless youth, with a gym, laundry facility, showers, lockers, and areas for doing art and taking a nap. They also host a life skills academy, with classes in everything from how to open a checking account to writing a rap song. 

“We know that young people’s brains are not developed until the age of 25,” said Brooke Tafoya, New Day’s chief executive. “So we’re customizing and designing programs that are meeting them exactly at the developmental stage they’re at.” 

Ultimately, though, shelters and drop-in centers are meant to be temporary solutions. According to their licensing, shelters are only supposed to house youth for up to 90 days, though shelters are able to extend that time by appealing to the licensing board. 

“Everybody recognizes that children are better off in a family environment,” said Hummel, of Dreamtree in Taos. This is why the first step for both nonprofit service providers and state child welfare officials is to try and reunite youth with their families.


In some cases, returning home is not a viable option. 

Maya Fern, 22, is a youth outreach coordinator for the New Mexico Coalition to End Homelessness. From the ages of 14 to 18, she was living on the street, fleeing abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. 

Homeless New Mexico youth: Young lady with long, dark hair wearing glasses
Maya Fern holding snack foods and socks she is buying to pass out to homeless people in Santa Fe, N.M. (Video screenshot: Kaelyn Lynch)

After being hospitalized for a suicide attempt and telling nurses about the abuse, she was asked to testify against the boyfriend. Her mother, who was struggling with drug addiction at the time, told her she would no longer be welcome at home if she did. 

Fern did not end up testifying, but she was not allowed back in her house, so she went to downtown Santa Fe and found a group of homeless teens and adults that took her in.

“They treated me better than my mom was at the time,” Fern said. 

The system lost track of her until she was picked up by the police as a witness to a fight between two other homeless teens. The police tried to bring her back home, but her mother refused to even open the door, she said. 

“Family reunification is big and important, but it’s not viable in all situations,” Fern said. “It wasn’t an option for me.” 

According to Fern, there was no room at the youth shelter in Santa Fe, so the police brought her to the youth mental ward of a hospital in Albuquerque, where she stayed for two weeks, then an additional two when no one claimed custody of her. 

Eventually, she was taken to a youth shelter in Albuquerque.

“I didn’t know anyone in Albuquerque, and the shelter was terrifying for me because I had become so used to my group in Santa Fe,” said Fern. She ended up hitchhiking back to Santa Fe, where she remained living on the streets. 

“Even if there are kids just running away, there’s a reason they’re running away,” Fern said. “If they’re more comfortable going outside their house, there’s something that needs to be looked at there.” 


For youth under 18 who can’t return home, there are limited options. 

“They can’t sign a lease, so it’s literally impossible for them to access housing unless they’re in a program,” Tafoya said. And with a few exceptions, many of those long-term programs, such as rapid rehousing, which works with landlords to cover all or a portion of clients’ rent, are limited to young adults 18 and older. Many youth fleeing home also lack any form of ID and the documents, like birth certificates, to obtain them. 

For system-involved youth in state or tribal custody, placement in a foster or relative’s household is the next option. But foster families, already difficult to come by, are even harder to find in a state where the median household income is a little over $50,000. 

“There aren’t many families willing to take in a teenager — period, especially one who has been through trauma and needs special care,” Dreamtree’s Hummel said. “Given the level of poverty across New Mexico, it’s particularly challenging to find families with the resources to do that.” 

Fern hands out food to a group of homeless teens and young adults. (Video screenshot: Kaelyn Lynch)

According to the New Mexico Substitute Care Advisory Council, there are 1,226 total relative and non-relative foster homes in the state, each of which are paid between $20 to $30 a day, depending on the level of care they are providing. The council notes that only 35.5 percent of kids in foster care find a permanent placement within two years, and they move foster care placements on average six times every 1,000 days. 

The lack of available care in the state at large means that youth are often bounced around within and even out of state. According to CYFD’s Lipton, in 2019, around 200 kids — more than 10 percent of those in CYFD custody — were placed out-of-state in a foster family or treatment facility. 

That number has decreased drastically since then — Lipton says there are only about 20 children currently out of state. But even youth who are able to remain in state are often sent hundreds of miles from their home communities for treatment or shelter.

Out-of-state placements were one of the practices targeted in a 2018 lawsuit brought against the state on behalf of 13 children in foster care. A settlement in March 2020 promised sweeping reforms to the state’s system, but two years later, many of those promised changes have not been implemented


Serrano of Casa Q said that the lack of long-term, stable care is one of the biggest barriers to breaking the cycle of youth homelessness. 

Unlike other shelters, Casa Q is licensed as a multi-service home, meaning that youth that come into the program can stay as little or as long as they’d like, with the length of stay determined by individual need. 

“We really knock down these barriers for kids, and they’re not the same people by the time they’ve left,” Serrano said. “But I can only do that because I have time. It takes a kid 30 days just to be able to look me in the eyes.” 

He said a major barrier to creating more multi-service homes like Casa Q is the cost. This level of 24-hour care, which includes housing, medical care and case management, is expensive — about $35,000 per child, per month. 

Another option is treatment centers, which cater to youth with behavioral health and substance abuse issues. But those are also in short supply compared to the need. 

According to Diana Lopez, a vice president at Albuquerque-based Youth Development, Inc., the state’s largest and oldest youth-serving homeless organization, the problem dates back to 2013, when New Mexico’s 15 largest behavioral health providers, which provided almost 90 percent of services, were investigated by the state for medicaid fraud

Funds were frozen and services were stopped. Even though all of the programs were eventually cleared, the damage was done, and most of the providers went out of business, leaving a gaping hole New Mexico’s healthcare system. The fallout was large enough to make national headlines and was even the topic of a 2019 documentary film, The Shake Up.

Homeless youth in New Mexico: young,woman with long dark hair wearing black pants and tan jacket crouches on sidewalk showing pairs of used sneakers to older homeless man with gray beard wearing a hat, jeans and plaid shirt sitting on stone bench.
Fern and an older homeless man in Santa Fe, N.M. look to see which shoes will be the best fit for him. (Video screenshot: Kaelyn Lynch)

“We always had the option of referring young people that needed longer-term care to behavioral health programs to help get them reintegrated back at home or find another placement for them, but those no longer exist,” Lopez said. “I think that’s a main reason why we’re seeing young people stay in our shelters longer than anticipated.” 

Jennifer Weiss-Burke runs Serenity Mesa, the treatment center were Monarco is a resident. It’s one of the only substance abuse treatment centers left in the state for kids under 18 that works with homeless youth on Medicaid. 

Weiss-Burke estimates that 98 percent of Serenity Mesa’s clients are housing insecure. 

Substance abuse is one of the biggest factors influencing youth homelessness: According to data collected by the 2020 New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, about 70 percent of homeless high school students in New Mexico reported using drugs — twice the rate of those in stable housing. About thirty percent are binge drinkers — three times the rate of their peers.

For homeless teens like Monarco, Serenity Mesa provides not only treatment for addiction, but also much-needed stability and community. She said the three months she’s spent there is the longest she remembers staying in one place, but now she describes the other residents of Serenity Mesa as family.

“I never had friends before until I came here,” Monarco said. “We’re trying to better our lives and that’s just, like, perfect.”


For other teens who slip through the cracks in the system, like Maya Fern, “it’s just a countdown to 18” when they can access housing programs, jobs and leases, she said. 

Homeless New Mexico youth:: Young woman with brown hair wearing glasses and a grey top holds baby wearing yellow dress on her hip
Fern holding her daughter at her mother’s house in Santa Fe, N.M. Fern, who was once estranged from her mother, reconciled with her as an adult. (Video screenshot: Kaelyn Lynch)
Homeles New Mexico youth; Homeless New Mexico youth:: Young woman with brown hair wearing glasses and a grey top holds a baby wearing yellow dress. up in the air.
Fern holding her baby up in the air. (Video screenshot: Kaelyn Lynch)

However, turning 18 does not automatically guarantee access to housing. According to the Voices of Youth Count, youth ages 18 to 25 experience homelessness at more than twice the rate of those ages 13 to 17. Waiting lists for housing programs are sometimes as long as a year, and rent is becoming less affordable even for those who are gainfully employed. 

A portion of these homeless young adults are those aging out of foster care. As many  as 46 percent of foster youth aging out of the system experience homelessness by the time they turn 26. To counter this, in 2020 New Mexico passed a law extending foster care, including guaranteed housing and food support, to the age of 21. 

One of the results of the extended foster care system is Casa North, a transitional living program in Rio Rancho, a suburb of Albuquerque. A sprawling 5,000 square-foot home on three acres of land that can house up to 10 youth, Casa North is one of seven such homes throughout the state designed to provide housing-insecure youth ages 18 to 23 support as they transition to adulthood. 

Youth that come from foster care, juvenile justice or referrals from shelters or other programs can stay in the home up to two years and receive what program manager Timothy Johnson calls a “one-stop shop” of services. In addition to food and housing, Casa North offers residents counseling, life skills, case management and help finding and paying for their own apartment once they leave. 

“We don’t expect most kids to have their own market-priced apartment at 18, so why should we expect these kids to?” Johnson said. “In many cases, they weren’t taught or didn’t have the opportunity to learn those particular skill sets.”  

Johnson said the state desperately needs more long-term programs like Casa North. 

“Enacting more programs or finding the funding through legislature to enact more of these programs would help and go a long way,” he says. “Because if we don’t, these young adults end up becoming older adults in the same predicament.” 


• Watch Part One — Tackling youth homelessness in New Mexico
• Watch Part Two — “Serenity Mesa”  ‘I try my hardest’: Homeless youth fight substance abuse in New Mexic
• Watch Part Three — “Casa Q”  ‘There’s no safe place’: One queer youth shelter serves all of New Mexico

This story originally published June 20, 2022, on Youth Today.

Video — Tackling youth homelessness in New Mexico


Tackling Youth Homelessness in New Mexico


New Mexico consistently ranks toward the bottom among states for child welfare (the Annie E. Casey Foundation is a funder of the Center for Sustainable Journalism). In an under-resourced state with an overburdened system, a tight-knit group of nonprofit service providers have had to get creative to fill the gaps.

Read the complete story with all three videos: Not enough beds, services for homeless youth in New Mexico

• Watch Part One — Tackling youth homelessness in New Mexico
• Watch Part Two — “Serenity Mesa”  ‘I try my hardest’: Homeless youth fight substance abuse in New Mexic
• Watch Part Three — “Casa Q”  ‘There’s no safe place’: One queer youth shelter serves all of New Mexico

This story originally published June 20, 2022, on Youth Today.

Video — ‘I try my hardest’: Homeless youth fight substance abuse in New Mexico


Serenity Mesa


Substance abuse is one of the largest co-occurring factors in youth homelessness. Yet, New Mexico lacks treatment facilities to help housing insecure youth struggling with addiction. Serenity Mesa in Albuquerque, one of the only programs in the state that serves unhoused young people, takes an unconventional approach to help their clients cope not only with addiction, but the underlying causes of it.

Read the complete story with all three videos: Not enough beds, services for homeless youth in New Mexico

Watch each video separately:
• Watch Part One — Tackling youth homelessness in New Mexico
• Watch Part Two — “Serenity Mesa”  ‘I try my hardest’: Homeless youth fight substance abuse in New Mexic
• Watch Part Three — “Casa Q”  ‘There’s no safe place’: One queer youth shelter serves all of New Mexico

This story originally published June 20, 2022, on Youth Today.

Video — ‘There’s no safe place’: One queer youth shelter serves all of New Mexico


Casa Q


LGBTQ+ youth experience homelessness at significantly higher rates than their peers. In Albuquerque, New Mexico’s only shelter specifically for queer young people provides a safe space for this vulnerable and exploited population to thrive.

Read the complete story with all three videos: Not enough beds, services for homeless youth in New Mexico

• Watch Part One — Tackling youth homelessness in New Mexico
• Watch Part Two — “Serenity Mesa”  ‘I try my hardest’: Homeless youth fight substance abuse in New Mexic
• Watch Part Three — “Casa Q”  ‘There’s no safe place’: One queer youth shelter serves all of New Mexico

This story originally published June 20, 2022, on Youth Today.

After a win for U.S. climate change education, classroom implementation is off to a slow start

By Menachem Wecker
Climate change education: A man with a red beard wearing a blue plaid shirt and dark cap
Earth and environmental science and astronomy teacher Andy Epton said he learned “almost nothing about climate change” in his college studies. (Courtesy of Andy Epton)

When he was hired 10 years ago to teach earth science in Virginia, Andy Epton had to create lessons on climate change from scratch. The textbook he inherited was so old it still classified Pluto as a planet, and Epton had learned “almost nothing about climate change” in his college studies. 

“I felt woefully unprepared,” he said.

Now, after years of online research and refining his own lesson plans, he concludes each term with a week on the topic.

“Students tend to remember the last thing that they learn,” said Epton, who now teaches earth and environmental science and astronomy at Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn, Michigan. “I use it as a kind of wrap-everything-up, let’s tie it all together. This is why we need to learn earth science. This is why we need to learn environmental science.”

Epton’s experience — lacking climate change training initially, then seeking out resources to teach it in more depth — follows national trends in how schools teach about climate change. 

Over the past nine years, 45 states and the District of Columbia have adopted fully or subscribed to the spirit of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which include emphasis on “human impacts” on the environment for middle schoolers and the impact of “human activity” on climate change for high schoolers.

The standards  — which states developed in partnership with national science and science education groups — describe knowledge and skills that students should master at each grade level. They are the framework upon which textbooks, lessons and tests are built. 

Climate change education - a woman with long dark hair in a black suit speaking into microphone at a podium
Carol O’Donnell is director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, (Courtesy of Carol O’Donnell)

While science education advocates hailed the new standards as a major step forward in climate change education, many states paid relatively little attention to preparing teachers for this major shift, said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in Oakland, California. 

Today, many teachers have little or no formal training about climate change, much less about how to teach it, and what students learn about climate change can vary widely from state to state and even classroom to classroom. While some students participate in carefully planned, in-depth lessons on climate change’s causes and possible solutions, many hear little about it in school. 

Since a 2014 survey found that 57 percent of science teachers had no formal training about climate change, there has been “some change for the better, but not in a big way,” Branch said.

Carol O’Donnell, director of the Smithsonian Science Education Center, and colleagues reach more than 500,000 U.S. students annually with their educational materials, supplementing what is already occurring in classrooms.

“The challenge we find at the Smithsonian is that school systems in the U.S. are not set up to allow for these much more complex, ‘wicked’ problems, or what we would call socio-scientific issues to be taught, because a teacher who teaches science in a middle school is addressing science standards. A teacher who is teaching social studies is addressing social studies standards,” she said. “Teaching climate change requires all of that.”

Climate change education: a man with light brown hair wearing mask, blue shirt and tan pants sits at computer speaking to a class of students sitting on floor
Forest Restoration Officer Jacob Pederson talks with fifth graders at Aspen Community School in Santa Fe, N.M. about wildfires and aridication. (Courtesy of Climate Advocates Voces Unidas)

One of many organizations nationally that supplements uneven climate change instruction in middle and high schools is Santa Fe-based Climate Advocates Voces Unidas. The group’s three-year-old Climate Innovation Challenge trains teachers to work with students to create two- to four-minute videos about a climate-related topic. 

“It gives students a way to process what they are seeing, and a way to engage these issues using their skill sets,” said CAVU Education Director Phil Lucero. “Our goals are about the individual. How can we help students find that strength within themselves to rise up and be a part of the solution, and to really find their own path forward.”

Many teachers have taken the initiative to build their own lessons on climate change, and some have worked together informally to share resources.

Climate change education - four people stand amid black equipment and boxes
Benito Juárez Community Academy student Jazzlyn Lopez (left) stands with instructors James Klock and Tracy Hall and Illinois IBEW Renewable Energy Fund Manager Robert Hattier. The school’s Juarez Solar Academy is a partnership between the school and the I.B.E.W. Local 134 Renewable Energy Fund. (Courtesy of James Klock)

James Klock, who has taught science for 18 years and now teaches at Benito Juárez Community Academy in Chicago and at the school’s solar power industry training program, began creating his own lessons on climate change after the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” came out in 2006. He has used data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, among other resources, and he and colleagues at other Chicago public schools created a small network to share resources.

In one lesson, Klock has students place plants in glass boxes to monitor carbon dioxide levels over time and observe the greenhouse effect. The class splits up into groups and each creates and monitors a terrarium — about 10 or 15 gallons each — for a different effect.

One senior contacted Klock after the end of the semester to say that he had always heard that climate change was important, but now he finally got it.

“That was a great day,” Klock said.

David Amidon, a science teacher at LaFayette Junior-Senior High School, located about 10 miles south of Syracuse, New York, has taught middle school science for 23 years. When he first started teaching, human impact on climate change was part of the middle school standards.

“I didn’t get a lot of that in college,” he said, so Amidon conducted his own research on the then-infant internet. 

He drew in particular on the writings of climate change communication researcher John Cook, who founded the site Skeptical Science. Two decades later, Amidon now devotes between two and four weeks to climate change in a typical term.

Amidon usually teaches students about the ozone hole at the beginning of the academic year, since depletion tends to occur in September. He focuses on data and interpreting modeling, where he thinks there is an optimistic story to tell students. 

Climate change education: a bald man wearing a dark gray shirt
LaFayette Junior-Senior High School science teacher David Amidon usually teaches students about the ozone hole at the beginning of the academic year, since depletion tends to occur in September. (Courtesy of Davis Amidon)

“That’s a story that has got a better ending, because things are definitely improving,” he said of the ozone hole. “It’s not all gloom and doom.”

In one project, he has students break into groups and gives each group two two-liter bottles. Students insert an Alka-Seltzer tablet in one of their group’s bottles and track temperature changes in the bottles as the tablets create carbon dioxide, modeling how carbon dioxide can increase temperatures globally.

For Nora Henning, a junior at North Central High School in Spokane, Washington, most of what she learned about climate change came from home, where her family emphasized environmental activism.

This year, Henning is one of 15 students at her school — out of more than 600 juniors and seniors — taking an AP environmental science elective, which addresses climate change extensively. Climate change came up briefly in her AP biology class, but the environmental science elective is the only time she recalls learning about climate change in a rigorous way in high school.

As a freshman, she and her classmates organized an online town hall about climate change education with school board members and about 150 students, which eventually led to the creation of the Student Advisory Council on Climate Change for Spokane Public Schools. Henning is president and a co-founder. 

At the town hall, the message from students about lessons on climate change was clear, said Henning.

“Overwhelmingly, what we heard from a diverse group — age, school, classes, difficulty of classes — was that they weren’t seeing it at all,” she said.

This story originally published June 22, 2022, on Youth Today.

iPad rentals, emergency funds and food pantries: What it takes to make “free college” work for all students

By Maura Fox

Since moving to New Mexico from her home country of Malaysia in 2017, Nuraisyah A Mohd Hilmi has paused her college education twice because she couldn’t afford tuition.

She left Northern New Mexico College in Espanola, New Mexico, after one semester because as an international student she couldn’t afford another $4,800 tuition bill. She returned after getting her green card, but when Covid-19 hit and she lost her job, even the $1,500 in-state tuition per course was too much.

Last year, Mohd Hilmi, 23, tried again, this time at Santa Fe Community College, where four online courses cost $800. Still, for most of this school year she worked two jobs, often seven days a week — as an employee at the school’s financial aid office and as a weekend bartender — and attended online classes at night. 

It’s been a stressful year — Mohd Hilmi said she once had to call in sick for a week after working 10 days in a row — but what’s gotten her through it and kept her on track to graduate by December are an array of services Santa Fe Community College provides to help students like her: computer and iPad rentals for students who can’t afford their own, reservable study spaces on campus for students whose living situations aren’t conducive to focus and the Student Emergency Assistance Fund, which helped her cover the costs of damages when her parked car was hit on campus. 

“I don’t always need the help, but when I do, I know that somebody is there,” Mohd Hilmi said. 

“Tuition-free” college

Services like these are likely to become even more important for New Mexico’s colleges this fall when the state’s newly expanded Opportunity Scholarship, which grants nearly all New Mexico residents free college tuition at 29 public schools in the state, goes into effect and New Mexico becomes one of nearly 30 states nationally to offer some form of “tuition-free” college. A 2020 study found enrollment jumped 23 percent at two-year colleges that adopted similar “tuition-free” programs compared to schools without these programs, with the biggest increases for Black, Hispanic and female students.  

“It doesn’t do the students a big favor if you give them money to get in the door but then don’t properly serve them and help them graduate.” David Tandberg, State Higher Education Executive Officers Association

New Mexico’s Opportunity Scholarship has been met with wide support in a state that has seen a decrease in college enrollment over the past decade. 

But as New Mexico and other states make college more affordable, it will be important for states to do more than just cover tuition. States should continue to “invest in the institutions themselves” to ensure they have adequate funding to support student programs, said David Tandberg, the senior vice president at the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO).

“They need the resources to properly serve the students, especially if there’s an increase in enrollment,” he said. “It doesn’t do the students a big favor if you give them money to get in the door but then don’t properly serve them and help them graduate.”

New Mexico’s Opportunity Scholarship, passed by the legislature earlier this year and signed by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in early March, is available to part and full-time students, as well as incarcerated students and adults working toward a training certificate or associate’s or bachelor’s degree. The program is a significant expansion of the state’s original Opportunity Scholarship, created in 2020. 

State higher education officials are confident it will be able to provide colleges the resources they need to support students under the Opportunity Scholarship. This year, New Mexico increased operational funding for higher education institutions to $657.7 million, up by $19 million from last year, and allocated more funding for campus services focused on food insecurity, academic and career advising, mental health and other needs that schools can access through a competitive grant application process. 

College costs: A crowd of people stand around a table in outdoor hallway with a red NM State University covering
Students wait to speak with New Mexico State University recruiter Josh Rysanek in March in Santa Fe, N.M. (Cedar Attanasio/AP)

“We understand that students are facing more now than they ever have before,” said Rosenda Baca-Minella, executive director of enrollment management and operational technology at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque.

The Opportunity Scholarship will receive $75 million for the coming year: $63 million from one-time federal pandemic relief and $12 million from recurring state funding. The state legislature will need to reallocate funding for the program each year.

Despite this, the Higher Education Department remains optimistic that the program is just getting started. 

“I can assure [legislators] that people are going to enroll in college and we will be able to show them that we’re investing in New Mexicans,” said Stephanie Rodriguez, New Mexico’s secretary of higher education. “People want to go back to school, stay in New Mexico and contribute to our economy.” 

“A lot of life can happen”

Community colleges have long focused on student services that address nonacademic needs, like helping ensure students have adequate housing or access to tutoring resources, because of the population they serve.

Many community college students are part-time or returning students who left school to join the workforce or support families.  Many of New Mexico’s community colleges — including Santa Fe Community College, Central New Mexico Community College and San Juan Community College in Farmington — say their existing “wraparound services” will help support the expected influx of students due to the Opportunity Scholarship.

For example, Central New Mexico Community College recently launched a new food pantry and is working to expand its in-person and online library and tutoring hours.

And at Santa Fe Community College, a student resource coordinator helps connect students with housing, rental assistance and child care. The school is prepared to scale up the service and related efforts, including expanding hours of operation, if it sees an increase in enrollment with the Opportunity Scholarship, said Thomasinia Ortiz-Gallegos, the school’s associate vice president for student success.

The 5,000-student college currently spends $4 million of its $36 million annual budget on student services, which are resources dedicated to students’ emotional or physical wellbeing.  

A woman with blonde and a black top hair speaks
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the Opportunity Scholarship proposal in 2019 at a community college in Albuquerque, N.M. (Susan Montoya Bryan/AP)

“We’re really looking at the holistic student and meeting them where they’re at,” Ortiz-Gallegos said. “Not every student is a traditional first time student coming from high school into college — our average age at the institution is about 36 years old — and a lot of life can happen by then.”

The state’s four-year universities are similarly aware of the nonacademic challenges that students face.

A 2021 study from the University of New Mexico, the state’s largest university system, found that a quarter of its students don’t have reliable access to food and 44 percent were housing insecure — facing unaffordable costs or living in unsafe or inadequate environments — in the previous 12 months. 

The school recently opened a new food pantry on campus and developed a mobile application that allows people to post when they have food left over from an event on campus to offer a meal to students. 

New Mexico State University in Las Cruces offers incoming students a free preparatory summer program that aims to strengthen their English and math skills and help them get connected with campus resources. While summer instructors are paid with state funding, the nonacademic elements of the program, like college readiness and time management workshops — areas school leaders say incoming students often struggle with — are funded through donations. 

The school expects this program to become even more valuable to students under the Opportunity Scholarship, especially for those who took time off between high school and college. 

Lorena Ortiz, who graduated from New Mexico State University in May, said that while she’d always like to see more funding for student resources, especially organizations that support students who are Native American, veterans, the children of migrant farmworkers or who have other needs, she thinks her school has done the best it can under the circumstances of the past few years. 

“I think NMSU has done a fantastic job [with student services] and trying to tend to so many different students’ needs and points of view,” she said.

What’s next

College costs: A woman with long dark hair wears a pink shirt standing in front of white wood rail fence
Nuraisyah A Mohd Hilmi expects to graduate from Santa Fe Community College later this year. (Ramsay de Give)

For the past decade, New Mexico has prioritized funding higher education — increasing spending by nearly 60 percent from 2010 to 2020, according to the College Board. In 2021, the most recent year complete data is available, New Mexico universities and colleges received $98 million from the state to support student services and programs.

Higher Education Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez noted that the current scholarship funding of $75 million is less than one percent of the state’s annual budget, a price point the state should be able to sustain. 

And given New Mexico’s low college enrollment rate — which fell 11 percent from 2010 to 2018, despite remaining stable across the country — Rodriguez is hopeful that as more students attend school, get degrees and start working in New Mexico, the benefits of the program will be clear to legislators voting on funding in the future.

For students like Mohd Hilmi, from Santa Fe Community College, the benefits will hit closer to home. She said she’ll feel less stressed about doing well in a class just because she’s paying for it.

“Wasting time isn’t a choice when you have a lot on your plate,” Mohd Hilmi said, referring to the expectation to succeed in school while managing multiple jobs. “But now, I won’t have this pressure on myself anymore.” 

This is one of many stories included in Youth Today’s OST reporting initiative.
This story originally published June 7, 2022, on Youth Today.

New Mexico’s marijuana record expungement lags behind legalization

By Hannah Hunter

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Thomas Wescott, 24, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, said he has been rejected by multiple employers due to a six-year-old conviction for marijuana possession.  

Today, he works at Sol Cannabis, the first cannabis consumption lounge in the state, which recently legalized recreational marijuana.

Wescott and others like him are poised to benefit from a law that went into effect last year mandating automatic expungement of nonviolent cannabis-related offenses. 

But over a year later, and just a few weeks after recreational marijuana became legal, Wescott said he was unaware that he may qualify for expungement until approached by a reporter. 

 “If I am supposed to be automatically expunged, I would like to have been informed by now,” said Wescott. 

His experience reflects an uneven implementation of new marijuana laws across New Mexico. As a result, someone like Wescott can legally buy or sell marijuana while saddled with a criminal record for the same thing.

Roxanne Garcia-McElmell, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney of Dona Aña County, which includes Las Cruces, confirmed that her office was behind in the process, blaming a lack of funding. 

“It is supposed to be automatic, but it’s not going to happen for a while,” Garcia-McElmell said.  

Emily Kaltenback is the senior director of criminal, legal and policing reform for the Drug Policy Alliance of New Mexico, which played a key role in drafting and advocating the two companion bills that legalized cannabis and mandated expungement. Kaltenback said it was her organization’s position from the beginning that it would not support one without the other. 

Grocery story worker Antonio Rodriguez, 38, buys various cannabis products for the first time at a store in New Mexico on Friday, April 1, 2022, at the Everest dispensary in Santa Fe. (Cedar Attanasio/AP)

“Expungement is important for people who have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs,” said Kaltenback. “That includes young people, young people of color and low income young people.”

According to a 2017 analysis by the alliance, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, New Mexico Voices for Children, and Bold Futures New Mexico (previously Young Women United), people of color in New Mexico’s largest county were arrested on drug charges at disproportionately high rates, despite having similar rates of drug use and sales as white people. This was in line with national trends, the report noted. 

According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, more than 15,000 children and young adults up to age 29 were arrested for marijuana possession from 2010 to 2020. However, that data is based on voluntary reports filed by law enforcement. In 2020, the most recent year available, only 20 out of 128 law enforcement agencies in New Mexico participated. 

Authorities in each of New Mexico’s 13 judicial districts are responsible for sorting through case records related to cannabis and automatically expunging those that qualify. Those currently incarcerated will have their cases reopened for determination of release and expungement. 

According to the law, the New Mexico Department of Public Safety was supposed to notify prosecutors in each judicial district of qualifying cases by this year. Prosecutors have until July 1, 2022, to make a determination.

But progress toward that goal, ahead of the July deadline, varies across the state. 

In New Mexico’s largest judicial district, which covers Albuquerque and the rest of Bernalillo County, a spokesperson said authorities are on track to meet the statutory deadlines. 

“No person has to wait for the automatic expungement of records related to cannabis,” Barry Massey of the Bernalillo County Administrative Office of the Courts wrote in an email.

But Garcia-McElmell, the spokesperson from Dona Aña, said it was “unlikely” her district could finish reviewing cases by the deadline. 

She said her office had not received the list of eligible cases from the state Department of Public Safety, nor had the state provided additional funding to support the effort. 

Dona Aña County Sheriff Kim Stewart echoed Garcia-McElmell’s frustration.

“A lot of laws get written by people who don’t do the work and they leave out the ‘how to’,” Stewart said. 

A fiscal impact report provided by the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee in March 2021 estimated that the statewide cost of facilitating the automatic expungement process would be about $500,000 over two fiscal years. 

The Drug Policy Alliance had pushed for some of the state’s tax revenue to be put into a specific fund supporting expungement, but that funding was not approved by legislators. 

According to Garcia-McElmell, every agency in the judicial system is backlogged. She recommended people who know they have records reach out to law enforcement and file a request for expungement. 

“It’s really important for young people to understand that the criminal justice system is slow-moving and if they need something done, they need to be proactive instead of reactive,” she said. “Let’s say they got arrested their freshman year of college and are getting ready to graduate and go out for a job — then I would recommend that they actively get it expunged.”

Kaltenback, of the Drug Policy Alliance, said lack of funding is no excuse for not meeting deadlines.

“The timelines are not flexible and they were put in there for a reason,” Kaltenback said. “This is about restoring the harm that people have carried for many years under a prohibition model.”

Some businesses in the now-legal marijuana industry are taking matters into their own hands.

ICANNAINVESTING managers, left to right: Ariana Zavala, Jose Zavala and Diajesma Orozco. Orozco said the company intends to donate a portion of its profits to helping eligible people expunge marijuana charges from their records. (Hannah Hunter)

Diajesma Orozco, a manager at ICANNAINVESTING, a dispensary in Las Cruces, said the store intends to donate a portion of its profits to helping eligible people get their records expunged. 

“Some people just are uninformed and need guidance,” Orozco said. “People are trying to change their lives and become better, but they need an opportunity to do so.” 

This story originally published June 3, 2022, on Youth Today.

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