Home Blog Page 2

New ghost gun rule unlikely to stem violence amid thriving youth gun culture

By Michael Gerstein

A high school junior steps out from his silver BMW not far from his school’s track and field on Albuquerque’s working-class west side.

Andrew Burson, 16, is there because another kid, Marcos Trejo, 14, stole something from him — a ghost gun, witnesses told police. So he pins Trejo against a fence and demands he give it back.

A confrontation ensues. Trejo runs. Burson pursues, then Trejo allegedly turns and fires five bullets into Burson.

Three months later, Trejo is in a juvenile detention center awaiting trial for murder and Burson’s family and the community are left reeling. The tragedy is one of many in a country where firearms are the leading cause of death for kids up to age 19.

“It’s really been hard. My wife got really sick,” said Al Burson, Andrew’s father. “And not only my wife and I and his brother, but the extended family — grandmothers, aunts and uncles — were devastated by this. And his friends too. His friends still come and visit.”

Ghost gun law: Dark-haired, middle-aged man with glasses in white button-down shirt stands outside holing photograph of a young, dark-haired boy in blue baseball cap and orange sports team t-shirt
Al Burson holds a photo of his late son, Andrew Burson, in Santa Fe, NM on May 25, 2022. (Ramsay de Give)

Two other children told police the fight started over the weapon used to kill Andrew Burson: an unmarked, unserialized handgun bought on the internet. An Albuquerque police spokesman said they never recovered the weapon, so the department was unable to confirm the type of gun used.

Ghost guns — so-called because they are nearly impossible to trace — are sold in parts and assembled by the buyer. Until recently, they were not classified as firearms, meaning there were no background checks and dealers didn’t have to be federally-licensed.

That has opened the door for traffickers, teens and people with felony records to get ghost guns.

“We’ve seen this is a major nexus for gun trafficking,” said David Pucino, deputy chief counsel at Giffords Law Center in New York and an expert on ghost guns. “It’s really a product that was designed to facilitate that.”

In April, the Biden administration approved a new rule classifying gun kits as firearms. The rule change requires sellers to conduct basic background checks and be federally licensed.

Gun control advocates, law enforcement and elected officials welcomed the rule change, but most said they think it will have little impact in most states since ghost guns comprise a tiny fraction of the weapons fueling gun violence in New Mexico and across the country.

Still, Pucino called the new rule “incredibly welcome and a huge win for public safety.”

Miranda Viscoli, co-president of New Mexicans to Prevent Gun Violence, was less optimistic. 

“I’ve asked kids how fast they could get a gun off the street, and they say ‘Eh, 20, 30 minutes,’” she said. 

Lanae Erickson, a lobbyist with the Washington D.C.-based Democratic think tank Third Way, said many people are frustrated with the lack of action on gun control in Congress. 

“The Biden administration went basically as far as they could with executive action,” said said. “I think a lot of folks recognize the administration’s hands are tied.”

Ghost gun trend collides with youth gun culture

From 2016 through the end of 2021, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms and Explosives received more than 45,000 reports of suspected ghost guns recovered by law enforcement nationwide, including nearly 700 linked to homicide or attempted homicide investigations, according to Erik Longnecker, a spokesman for the ATF Phoenix division. 

Most ghost gun seizures have been in California or New York. Although they are on the rise in New Mexico, which has the seventh highest gun death rate in the country — mostly from suicide — fewer than 100 ghost guns were recovered between between 2016 and 2021.

A 9mm pistol build kit with a commercial slide and barrel with a polymer frame is displayed before President Joe Biden and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco speak in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, April 11, 2022, to announces a final version of its ghost gun rule. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

But when crime trends change on the coasts, it often takes years for New Mexico to follow suit, said Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez, whose office is prosecuting the case against Trejo.

“Right now, the crime guns we see on the streets of Albuquerque are not connected with ghost guns,” he said. “But if we follow the national trend, I think this will change over time.”

Indeed, ghost guns appear to be woven into local youth gun culture. 

Nick Hernandez graduated from West Mesa High, where Andrew Burson was a student, in 2019.

Hernandez, now 20 and a college student, said the first time he saw a classmate bring a gun to school was in the seventh grade. The second was during class his junior year.

“It is common,” Hernandez said. “You kind of get used to it.”

Another time, Hernandez said a friend tried to sell him a “ghost glock” — a term he heard from other students as well. 

“A lot of my friends talk about them,” he said. “They would mention one of their buddies has one, or they’re getting one.”

Hernandez said he thinks the youth gun culture he experienced stems from poverty.

“These students are in these conditions and they have no other outlet to express themselves,” he said.

Andrew Burson’s father said he doesn’t believe his son bought a ghost gun. But two witnesses told police otherwise.

One said Andrew Burson posted on Snapchat the day before he died: “Some fool stole my gun, no big deal, just a minor setback,” according to Trejo’s arrest warrant.

Cycle of outrage and inaction

Albuquerque Police Department spokesman Gilbert Gallegos declined an interview with Albuquerque Police Chief Harold Medina and homicide detectives to discuss Burson’s killing and the role of ghost guns in local crime. The city also declined an open records request for the police report of Andrew Burson’s death. 

Trejo’s attorney, Todd Farkas, a public defender, declined an interview, but wrote in an email: “I think it is very sad that the state is seeking adult sanctions on a 14 year-old.” 

Andrew Burson was not the first Albuquerque student killed on or near campus recently. 

The shooting death last year of 13-year-old Benny Hargrove, an eighth grader at Washington Middle School in Albuquerque, provoked outrage and calls for legislative action to hold parents liable for not securing firearms that are later used by children to commit a crime.

But despite Democrats controlling all levels of state government, the measure failed to clear the Legislature.

“We never got a clear answer to why that bill didn’t pass,” said bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Pamelya Herndon, a Democrat from Albuquerque. 

She said she intends to tackle state-level gun reform, including ghost gun regulations, again during the 2023 legislative session.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller declined to be interviewed for this story. A spokeswoman for the mayor, Ava Montoya, said in a statement  that gun violence cannot be fixed by any single entity or action.

“Any step toward common sense gun laws, like the federal ghost gun rule, is welcome progress,” she said.

In 2020, the city created a violence intervention program that sends specialists to hospitals in the wake of a shooting to peaceably intervene. 

Some critics argue that the program doesn’t address the root causes of violence, but Angel Garcia, a social services coordinator with the program, said he hasn’t “met one kid yet who’s been hardened to the point where they’ve said, ‘No I don’t want your help.’”

Ghost gun laws: Man with dark hair and full beard in an uniform shirt and dark baseball cap leans on top railing of white metal rail fence with city buildings in background
Angel Garcia, the social services coordinator for the Albuquerque’s violence intervention program, photographed in Albuquerque, N.M. on May 17, 2022. (Ramsay de Give)

Garcia, who grew up in Los Angeles in the nineties, said he started carrying a gun at the age of 12 after joining a gang because he had to walk past six rival gangs and was tired of getting beaten up on his way to school.

He spent 12 years in prison before taking a job with the city trying to help people walk away from a life of violence.

“Honestly, I just don’t think it’ll make a difference,” Garcia said of the Biden rule on ghost guns. “There’s people out there that have bazookas and grenades, to be honest with you. If somebody wants a gun, they’re gonna get one.”

Responding to trauma and grief

Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman Monica Armenta declined interview requests with West Mesa High School’s principal, teachers, counselors and the superintendent.

The district has shared little with students about Andrew Burson’s killing, citing privacy concerns for the victim’s family. 

But experts on childhood trauma after school shootings say transparency is key for healing.

Sandy Graham-Bermann, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, said that includes sharing facts about what happened, how police are involved, locations of vigils and opportunities for students to ask questions directly.

“The families are now terrified — ‘Would my kid be shot tomorrow?’” she said. “It affects the family, and then it affects the community.”

Melissa Brymer, director of terrorism and disaster programs at UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, said it’s important for the district to make a map of the people who knew both students, including friends, lovers or teammates, so that the school can offer counseling and support.

“In the end, you have people mourning the loss of their friends, the loss of their family member, and many of those questions go back to how much they miss that person,” Brymer said. “As we’re focusing on the trauma, we also need to focus on the grief.”

For Al Burson, who said he support’s Biden’s new ghost gun rule, he’s just trying to get by after the death of his son. 

“We’re still in the grieving phase, and sometimes, it’s still a shock,” he said. “What hurts most is that I won’t see what he’ll become. I knew what he was, but I won’t be given the chance to see what he’ll become. And I think that’s the thing that affects me the most. And it wasn’t an accidental death either: His life was taken by someone else.

“I don’t want anybody to ever have to go through this.”

This is one of many stories included in Youth Today’s OST reporting initiative.
This story originally published June 3, 2022, on Youth Today.

Youth find hope restoring Rio Grande wetlands threatened by climate change 

By Javier Gallegos

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — La Mancha Wetland Park in Las Cruces, New Mexico, is a cool oasis in the spring heat of the surrounding desert for the beavers, turtles and birds that frolic in its waters and willow trees.

The park, which is connected to the Rio Grande, is also a refuge for the young people who have dedicated themselves to restoring and managing an ecosystem under threat from climate change. 

“I grew up in a community that was kind of detached from places like this, so we didn’t really have exposure to nature,” said Sergio Delgado, 29, a native of El Paso, Texas, another city along the Rio Grande, who volunteers every weekend at La Mancha. 

He looks after native plants, removes non-native species and clears the pond of dead leaves and branches.


Sergio Delgado clears a pond at La Mancha Wetland Park in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on April 30, 2022. (Javier Gallagos)

“I feel places like this help expand your mind to see what else is out there and spark a new passion,” said Delgado. 

He is quick to point out that small projects like La Mancha can mitigate some of the damage to the river’s ecology, but they can’t solve the larger issues facing it. 

“It’s a tiny Band-Aid on the giant wound that humans and the people in the past opened up,” Delgado said. 

La Mancha is one of the many wetland restoration projects along the Rio Grande. Over the past century, with the introduction of different dams and the canalization of many stretches of the river, naturally occurring floodplains and riparian areas along the river have disappeared. At the same time, water flow has been declining decade after decade. The American West is experiencing its worst megadrought in over 1,000 years

Esperanza Chairez Uriarte, 24, of Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide communities of color with sustainable access to public lands. (Javier Gallegos)

“I think it’s important for youth in Las Cruces to understand what the river used to look like and understand that what they see the majority of the year – just this dry, empty river – isn’t the reality of what this landscape used to look like,” said Esperanza Chairez Uriarte, 24, of Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to provide communities of color with sustainable access to public lands.

“They have a role in shaping that future,” she added.

Nuestra Tierra owns and manages La Mancha. They encourage the community to spend time in the park and frequently have events there that promote restoration of the environment. 

Uriarte said she believes it can inspire hope in people, especially younger generations, by showing how the environment along the Rio Grande can thrive if maintained. 

The park is approximately four acres with a pond at its center. The pond was artificially created by digging deep enough to fill the hole with natural ground water, though it can receive water from the Rio Grande during the wet season. Construction was completed in 2016 with the intention of helping preserve the freshwater fish population that had been dying steadily as the Rio Grande dries up.

Alex Mayer, director of the Center of Environmental Resource Management at the University of Texas in El Paso, said there are multiple reasons the Rio Grande is drying up. He has spent his career researching water management and has worked on many projects dealing with water scarcity, human infrastructure, and climate change. 

“There has been a cycle, more than 20 years by now, of low snowpack,” Mayer said. “The water that we see in Las Cruces and El Paso is really snowmelt. There has been less snowpack, the snowpack [is] melting earlier and more quickly, which has these feedback effects.”

La Mancha Wetland Park is approximately four acres with a pond at its center. The pond was artificially created by digging deep enough to fill the hole with natural ground water, though it can receive water from the Rio Grande during the wet season. (Javier Gallegos)

He explained snowpack melting fast means reservoirs may not be able to capture all the water that is released in a short amount of time. In the past, the snow melted more slowly, creating a slower, steadier stream.

Mayer also said as global temperatures rise, evaporation increases, which depletes the water that is stored in reservoirs along the river. 

It is because of this uncertain water availability that the Rio Bosque Wetland Park in El Paso, Texas, is so reliant on artificially supplied water. 

Rio Bosque is a 372-acre park located in east El Paso along a part of the Rio Grande that is heavily canalized due to the border between the United States and Mexico.

The wetland is supplied by multiple large pumps around the park that create a series of ponds. The source of the park’s water is mostly treated wastewater, but also groundwater and irrigation from the river at certain times of year. 

Like La Mancha in Las Cruces, the Rio Bosque is heavily reliant on volunteer work. The large park has only two full-time staff members for daily maintenance, so community workdays are held every month to provide additional assistance necessary for the park to thrive. 

Gloria Hernandez, 18, a local high school senior, said she started volunteering at the park to learn more about the environment and the local impacts of global warming. 

“I started hearing about climate change and I was like, ‘What is that?’” she said. “I wanted to see how it was affecting my region here in El Paso.”

Sergio Delgado clears a pond at La Mancha Wetland Park in Las Cruces, New Mexico, on April 30, 2022. (Javier Gallegos)

Hernandez has become active in her school’s environmental club. 

She and the rest of the club members have been in the process of restoring one acre of land by removing invasive species and maintaining native ones. They also do additional field work, like testing water samples and measuring the biodiversity of plants. 

The student volunteer work is supported by Insights El Paso Science Center, a local nonprofit that covers the cost of transportation, substitute teacher pay, materials and supplies.

 “This work couldn’t be possible without community contribution and help from the students,” said Jennifer Ramos-Chaves, the environmental education manager at Insights. 

As the waters of the Rio Grande dwindle year by year, these parks offer glimpses into a natural world that is disappearing throughout the watershed. Organizers say that volunteers, including many youth, help preserve pockets of this ecosystem in the hopes that one day it can be restored at a larger scale. 

“It makes me feel very hopeful,” said Hernandez, the high school student. “I can’t wait to see what it looks like in a decade. I hope to bring my children here someday.” 

This is one of many stories included in Youth Today’s OST reporting initiative.
This story originally published June 2, 2022, on Youth Today.

Youth employment opportunities shine bright this summer

By Brian Rinker
Cristin Chavez-Smith, a manager with the city of Albuquerque, is preparing to welcome over 1,000 young people ages 14 to 24 to work this summer as lifeguards, recreation leaders and office interns.

While she’s hoping this summer’s youth employment program will be as vibrant as it was before Covid-19 cast its shadow across the country, the city is struggling to remain competitive with local businesses, many of whom have boosted wages in response to a nationwide worker shortage. 

“I won’t lie and say it’s been easy, because our industry has been hit just as hard as every other industry with hiring,” said Chavez-Smith, who oversees recreation and education initiatives for the city. “We have to sell our experience more as, ‘This is a really fun job.’” 

Cristin Chavez-Smith photographed at the Wells Park Community Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico on May 26th, 2022. (Ramsay de Give)

Summer of 2022 is shaping up to be one of economic opportunity for millions of young people, from teens looking for summer jobs to recent college graduates and young adults seeking entry level positions in a new career. 

Despite recent upticks of Covid-19 cases in some regions, mask mandates, vaccination rules and other restrictions have largely been dismissed. At the same time, employers are increasing wages and flexibility to lure workers in a tight labor market. 

Paul Harrington, director of the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University, predicted this summer’s job prospects for young people will be “outstanding.” He cautioned, however, that the likelihood of a recession in the next year is increasing, based on inflation, interest rates and the stock market.

“Get that summer job and save your money,” he advised youth. “And hold onto that job like grim death.”

The center recently released its annual Summer Job Outlook for American Teens, which projects employment among 16 to 19-year-olds to hit 32.8%, its highest level since the Great Recession of 2008 but still well below the youth employment peak of 45% in 2000. The report did not address young adults in the 20-24 age range, but Harrington said he expected similarly rosy prospects. 

Youth employment consistently rose from the second world war to the end of the 20th century and has fallen since, a trend Harrington attributes to several factors including an increased cultural emphasis on academics to the exclusion of work experience. He also pointed to wide variation in youth employment between states based on regulations and work culture. 

“I would like to see much higher employment rates than what we’re getting,” said Harrington, adding that work experience at a young age is correlated with positive outcomes later in life, including better education and employment, and higher wages and wealth. 

Tight labor market drives wage increases

Austin Brandt, 20, a rising junior at the University of Georgia in Athens, is among the young workers taking advantage of a favorable job market. 

This summer, he’ll be staying in the college town working full time for a university-affiliated catering company. He has also landed a weekend job at Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and plans to save as much as he can for rent in an off-campus apartment. 

Both the catering company and Ben and Jerry’s recently increased pay. Brandt said he avoided applying to at least one restaurant because he heard the management was “a little on the sketchy side.”

“They’re really, really trying to attract people in general, but, you know, younger people to these jobs,” Brandt said. “I do enjoy working because it gives me a sense of purpose.”

Job candidate Maya Williams, right, is interviewed for a health care customer service position at the L.A. Care Health Plan job fair at the company’s office in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, May 21, 2022. (Ramsay de Give)

Job placement programs that work with young people have taken note of recent trends in the industries that have traditionally employed the bulk of this group. Leisure and hospitality, including food service; retail; and educational, healthcare or social services together employed three-quarters of teens who worked over the summer of 2021, according to the Summer Job Outlook report. 

“The demand for new workers for jobs decimated by the pandemic has driven significant wage increases for a lot of entry-level jobs that would have otherwise been minimum wage,”  said Adriane Armstrong, CEO of Juma Ventures, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that supports, trains and employs low income and foster youth in entertainment venues.

The hospitality and retail industries in particular offer young people looking for their first job a great opportunity to get hired and lay a track record of employment, she said. 

Michigan’s Adventure, an amusement and water park in Muskegon County, is among the private sector businesses that have had to make changes in order to return to its pre-pandemic level of service. 

Following two summers of restricted hours and capacity, the park is slated to open every day this summer and is looking to hire upwards of 1,300 employees, many of whom are high schoolers. 

For those over 18, and 16-year-olds hired in food service, retail and lifeguarding, the starting wage is $16.50 an hour, a $5 increase over 2020 and $1.50 more than last year. Michigan’s  minimum wage is $9.87 per hour. 

“That’s not something we’ve ever done before,” Laure Bollenbach, a spokesperson for Michigan’s Adventure, said about the company’s jump in hourly wages. “We want to offer an attractive wage out in the community because everyone’s hiring.”

In Albuquerque, Chavez-Smith said the city doesn’t have the budget to pay young people more than minimum wage — $11.50 in New Mexico. 

Meanwhile, most of the employers it competes with for summer labor, such as pizza and fast food restaurants, amusement parks and retailers have upped wages. Hobby Lobby, a national arts and crafts retail chain with locations in Albuquerque, recently raised its minimum starting wage to $18.50 an hour.

Connecting youth with jobs

Not all young people have equal opportunity or presence in the job market. According to Harrington’s research, teens from low-income families are less likely to work than those from higher-earning families.

Bryan O’Connor, a social media coordinator for the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City N.J., walks through a door during a job fair the casino held on April 11, 2022. (Ramsay de Give)

Armstrong, who works with vulnerable youth, pointed out that the pandemic caused many employers to pause or shut down internship programs, and while some have restarted, they remain highly competitive. 

Transportation to and from work can also be a problem, she said. In some cities, public transit routes and frequency were cut during the pandemic and have not been restored, and driving is getting more expensive with gas prices at record highs.

But Harrington said the remedy is simple and many programs are quite successful at placing low income and vulnerable youth in jobs.

“It’s not hard, you just have to help them,” said Harrington. “The labor market is a social institution, right? It’s just kind of getting hooked up and someone helping you get in there.”

Workforce Connection of Central New Mexico is one of many public bodies nationwide that support youth employment with classes on resume writing and interviewing skills, as well as assistance with transportation costs, childcare and money for college. 

This summer, Workforce Connection is also launching a new program to place young people with employers who will pay them $14 an hour — an increase over previous years’ wages — and provide mentoring. 

“Everything is reopened and we are seeing some relaxation of public health orders, so it seemed like a really great thing to launch the summer work academy to get people engaged back into employment,” said Joy J. Forehand, the organization’s operations manager. 

Changing lives

Staff member Priscilla Acosta preps a meal for students at Westgate Community Center in Albuquerque. (Ramsay de Give)

Advocates and experts agree that work experience fosters independence and vital social skills among youth, especially those entering their first job. 

“It’s really your first foray into adult life where you’re on the hook for your own behavior,” said Harrington. 

Chavez-Smith, with the city of Albuquerque, said it’s important to impart to the young people who come work for the city that they have the capacity to “change lives,” especially those who will work with younger children at the city’s recreation centers. 

She speaks from personal experience. Chavez-Smith recounted how, ten years after she tutored kids in reading at a community center, a mother of one of the students tracked her down and invited her to the child’s high school graduation. 

“We’ve never forgotten what you did for us and for our kid,”  Chavez-Smith recalls the mother saying. “He was able to finish school because he learned to read back at that community center.”

Chavez-Smith tells that story to a fresh group of young workers every summer.

This story is one of many included in Youth Today’s OST reporting initiative.
This story originally published May 31, 2022, on Youth Today.

New Mexico child welfare agency gets funding boost

By Steve Jansen

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico’s child protective services department is set to receive a funding boost officials say will be used to improve services for foster youth, including creating more specialized placements for some of the state’s most vulnerable kids.

During the 2022 New Mexico Legislature, state lawmakers approved a 9.4% funding increase for the Children, Youth and Families Department. CYFD, which asked for nearly $255 million for its general fund ahead of the legislative session, will receive approximately $230 million for its 2023 general fund operating budget. The department’s overall budget is expected to be over $346 million.

The budget increase doesn’t account for a federal match of close to $10 million that’s likely vanishing when the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2022.

“We’re expecting that federal money to disappear and we’re going to have to figure out ways to pay [the difference],” said CYFD spokesperson Charlie Moore-Pabst. The $10 million includes $6 million for protective services, $2.8 million for behavioral health services, and $900,000 in program support.

Some of the additional state money will be dedicated to boosting security measures for CYFD in-office staff and filling gaps in specialized residential services for youth experiencing severe mental illness. Moore-Pabst said that youth exiting these treatment facilities are often placed in traditional and treatment foster care, and that this population needs more options for psychiatric care.

“If the needs were high enough that they needed to be in residential treatment, sending them back to a lower rung of care is not helpful,” said Moore-Pabst. CYFD will dedicate over $3 million in establishing more 12- to 14-bed sub-acute residential facilities throughout the state, they said.

The state’s child welfare agency will also shift empty positions from juvenile justice to behavioral health services, and collaborate with the New Mexico Human Services Department to provide community health services in accordance with a legal settlement the state entered into following a lawsuit alleging it re-traumatized children in its care.

Additionally, the department is carrying over a $7 million appropriation from 2022 to modernize its case management software. In June 2021, two fired CYFD employees filed a whistleblower suit against the department, former cabinet secretary Brian Blalock, and deputy cabinet secretary Terry Locke, alleging that CYFD violated state procurement laws when pursuing a no-bid, multi-million dollar information technology program.

CYFD also received a $500,000 appropriation for domestic violence services. Plans to open the state’s first safe house for sex trafficked youth are also moving forward the agency recently released a request for applications for the safe house’s provider.

In March, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law an all-time high budget following the conclusion of the legislative session. In addition to CYFD’s increased financial support, New Mexico’s $8.72 billion general fund budget, an increase of 14% from 2022, includes more dollars dedicated to K-12 public school educators and support staff.

UPDATE: Following publication of this article, CYFD spokesperson Charlie Moore-Pabst provided the following statement:

We wish to clarify the department’s priority with respect to behavioral health services and correct a misconception about our priorities. In my statement, as published, it appears that the department sees residential treatment as the best option for children and sub-acute congregate care as a second-best. This is not true. In practice and in line with our Kevin S settlement, sub-acute residential is not the least restrictive setting nor is it a preferred placement. Community-based supportive family placements either with multi-systemic therapy, treatment/specialized foster care, or other non-congregate settings are the better option.

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

New Mexico officials hope to open state’s first safe house for sex trafficked youth

By Julia Sclafani

New Mexico child welfare officials say plans for the state’s first safe house for sex trafficked youth are finally moving forward, more than two years after Bernadillo county commissioners voted to allocate $1 million for the project. 

The shelter will house up to 12 individuals between the ages of 14 and 18 who have been referred by law enforcement, the juvenile justice system, medical professionals or other relevant authorities.

Supporters say the facility will fill a dire gap in services for some of the state’s most vulnerable young people by providing specialized, wraparound services and extending the period of time clients can stay compared to existing shelters. 

Liz Hamilton, deputy director of behavioral health at the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department, said the new model will allow caseworkers to get to know the youth in their care, “build rapport with them and really be able to identify what are their needs.” 

“It gives us the ability to also stabilize them in regards to their mental health, if there’s any medical need or substance use need,” she said. “It allows us a lot more time to really individualize the plan for them.”

Myth versus reality in sex trafficking

Though popular portrayals of human trafficking tend to conjure ideas of violent kidnappings and cross-border human smuggling, the majority of sexual exploitation happens much closer to home and likely involves someone close to the victim, experts say. 

“The images that America has had for several years around human trafficking is girls chained to beds and things like that,” said Shelley Repp, the executive director of New Mexico Dream Center, a Christian non-profit that works with survivors of sex trafficking. 

She said those images “aren’t accurate with the lived experience of the human trafficking victim.” 

A victim doesn’t have to be transported anywhere to be trafficked — trafficking is the act of coercing someone into labor or commercial sex, no matter where they are. All commercial sex involving minors is considered trafficking under the law. 

New Mexico sex trafficking: Middle-aged woam with long blonde hair wearing blue denim jacket and black blouse stares pensively to left of camera.
Shelly Repp, executive director of New Mexico Dream Center, in Albuquerque, N.M., on Feb, 26, 2022. Repp said misconceptions about sex trafficking can harm victims. (Ramsay de Give)

Some youth are at higher risk than others of being trafficked. Significant risk factors include recent migration or relocation, substance use, mental health concerns, involvement with the child welfare system and being a runaway or homeless youth, according to the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking organization that operates the national human trafficking hotline. 

These vulnerabilities can be exploited by traffickers to control their victims. 

Repp recalled the story of one youth, a refugee who had been placed with a foster family in Albuquerque. 

The girl was told she would be kicked out of the family’s home once she turned 18 because federal resettlement support payments would end. She was subsequently coerced into commercial sex by the foster family, Repp said.

Another young girl Dream Center works with first ran away from home at age 11 to the home of a friend who was involved in a gang. Eventually, the young girl was forced into commercial sex by the gang for income, Repp said. 

Misconceptions about trafficking are so prevalent that many young victims do not realize they have been coerced and blame themselves, Repp said. 

“The perception of victims that we see is that they made bad choices,” said Repp. “‘I chose to run away … so I’m not a victim, because I’m choosing this. Like — this is what it is.’”

Filling a service gap

Currently, New Mexico has no dedicated shelter to serve the needs of youth who have experienced sex trafficking. There also aren’t any residential detox programs for minors. 

This isn’t inconsequential, said Repp. Upwards of 80% of Dream Center’s youth clients are also struggling with addiction. 

“If you’re in the state of New Mexico, and you’re a kid and you’re addicted, and you want to get off stuff, you just have to … hope your parents have lots of money and can send you somewhere,” Repp said. “You just kind of have to suck it up and survive and hope you make it.” 

The proposed safe house will differ from existing facilities in that it would be equipped to house clients for up to 90 days — significantly longer than the 30-day limit common at shelters in the area.  

The facility will also have tighter security than other shelters, and full-time support staff and on-site services, including schooling, medical and behavioral health services, such as treatment for addiction, tailored to meet the specific needs of trafficking survivors. 

Albuquerque Police Department detective Kyle Hartsock has long been a proponent of creating a specialized safe house. 

Hartsock helped establish the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department Ghost Unit to handle human trafficking investigations from what he described as a “victim-centered” perspective — one that also helps law enforcement.

“The more that we’re able to build trust and connect with the victims of human trafficking, the stronger criminal cases we can make,” Hartsock said. “One of the weak spots that we realized was that the youth crisis shelter program was not set up for trafficking victims to be successful.”

Next steps

The shelter is a joint project of CYFD and Bernalillo County, where Albuquerque is the county seat. According to the Polaris Project, the greater Albuquerque area is a major hotspot for trafficking in the state. It’s home to nearly a third of New Mexico’s population, and is a major confluence of interstate highways. Trafficking operations often intersect with commercial transportation and trucking activity, the organization says.

In December, the county and state finalized a contract regarding the building and operations of the facility outlined in the original proposal. Officials attribute the drawn out process to the state’s stringent requirements for facilities housing youth, as well as limited real estate inventory.

The chosen building — the location and identifying details are kept confidential for the safety of CYFD’s clients — is owned by the state. Officials said they took into consideration how well-suited the site was to housing youth, the safety of the surrounding area and proximity to services.

In November, CYFD began the process of finding a contractor to operate the facility. The department may issue a request for proposals this month, CYFD told Youth Today.

Hamilton hopes to see the shelter operating as soon as the end of 2023. The state has allocated $400,000 a year to pay a contractor to operate the safe house, per the agreement.

“We’re expecting about an eight to nine month process,” Hamilton said.

Despite the complex process and long lead time, Hamilton and others are hopeful the new facility will offer a safe space to engage in trauma-informed treatment and services for some of the county’s most vulnerable youth.

“To me, the safe house will be a place [where] these youth who have been trafficked … don’t have to worry,” said Hamilton. They will “have people there that basically have their back and can say, ‘What do you need?’”

This story originally published March 17, 2022, on Youth Today.

Video — ‘We celebrate together’: Home visitation programs support new parents

Videographer: Kaelyn Lynch

Maura Fox / Video by Kaelyn Lynch

Marisol Trevizo-Carlos wasn’t sure what to expect when she became pregnant with her son in 2017. Although the 24-year-old was married and had a job helping resettle newly-arrived immigrants in Santa Fe, New Mexico, she missed the support of her family, who lived in other parts of the state or in Mexico, and she didn’t have much experience being around children. 

So when a colleague directed her to a local nonprofit that provided first-time parents with prenatal classes and home visits, she thought she’d give it a try. 

Over the next three years, a home visitor came to her house every month, offering useful lessons on breastfeeding, learning through play and baby-proofing. When her son started walking at 11 months old, Trevizo-Carlos said she was grateful to have a home visitor reassure her that he was developing normally. 

“It was really neat having this neutral person who was not going to tell me how to raise my kid, but who was going to be there to support me and give me guidance,” said Trevizo-Carlos, who accessed the services through United Way, now Growing Up New Mexico. 

In addition to providing basic prenatal and early childhood development education to parents, home visitors are also trained to screen for violence in the home and connect families to resources if they’re struggling with challenges such as mental illness or financial problems. In New Mexico, a state ranked second to last in terms of overall child well-being based on education, health, family and economic security, home visitation programs can provide additional support to families (the Annie E. Casey Foundation is  funder of the Center for Sustainable Journalism). 

There are 33 state-funded home visitation programs for new parents in New Mexico, with each using one of four models: First Born, NurseFamily Partnership, Parents as Teachers and Partners for A Healthy Baby. Programs are free to families and continue until a child is 5 years old. 

Trevizo-Carlos said she valued the program so much that, in 2020, she decided to become a home visitor herself. Today, she works for Growing Up New Mexico, which offers home visits, childhood education programs and courses for child care providers in Santa Fe and Rio Arriba counties. 

“I appreciate the job, how my home visitor made me feel and the relationship that we developed,” she said. “It was something I wanted to do.”  

Creating a model for New Mexico’s challenges 

Home visitors served 5,697 families in New Mexico in 2021, according to the New Mexico Early Childhood Education and Care Department, a slight dip from 5,746 in 2020, though the service has steadily grown over the past five years. The majority of families — 60 percent — were Hispanic; 17 percent were white and 10 percent were Native American. Half of New Mexico’s population is Hispanic or Latino, according to the census, with 37 percent white and 11 percent Native American. 

About 70 percent of primary caregivers who received services did not have a college education. 

In total, 99 percent of these parents sought out prenatal care and roughly 91 percent of children were screened for healthy development, including milestones like sitting up and crawling, and referred for additional support such as speech or physical therapy if needed. Eighty-three percent of families were screened for intimate partner violence.

Each home visitation model follows a curriculum organized by the stages of development in a child’s life from prenatal to five years old. Some lessons offer parents educational activities they can do with their child as they grow. A home visitor may introduce a conversation about childproofing by going room by room, pointing out electrical outlets in the bedroom that need to be covered or making sure knives in the kitchen are out of reach. 

Many programs also check on the parents’ mental health through the Edinburgh Depression Scale and review the parent-child relationship with the Piccolo assessment.

“We usually sit on the living room floor, where the baby or toddler is,” Trevizo-Carlos said, describing how she structures her home visits. “We ask them how the week has been and if they’ve had struggles, and then we brainstorm together on why.”

When something good happens, like when a child starts walking or speaking their first words, “we celebrate together,” she added.

Of the four home visitation models used in New Mexico, First Born is the only one that was specially created for New Mexico, while the others are national models. First Born launched in 1997 in Grant County, located in the southwest corner of the state. 

The model was created with New Mexico’s specific challenges in mind. Unlike many models, which are only offered to families that meet a certain low-income criteria, First Born is available to everyone. As the state with the third highest percentage of residents living in poverty, according to the census bureau, First Born was built on the premise that the majority of New Mexican families could benefit from home visits. 

In 2020, the most recent year for which they have full demographics, First Born reported that 50 percent of their families were on Medicaid and 67 percent were non-white. 

When the program first started, it was also common for home visitation models to require visitors to be registered nurses, like the NurseFamily Partnership model. New Mexico, though, has seen a decades-long nursing shortage that has only gotten worse. As a solution, First Born allows anyone to become a home visitor if they complete the required training.  

Today, the program offers a 36-hour training course through the Santa Fe Community College’s Institute for Innovative Families Program, and receives $2.7 million annually from the state. The course trains home visitors in 29 competencies including communication skills, children’s development, and how to handle situations of domestic abuse or substance use. 

After years of successful implementation across the state, the coronavirus pandemic has posed significant challenges to home visitor programs. 

Some home visitors were used to driving hours to serve families in rural areas. The shift to telehealth services has been a struggle for many of those families, who are more likely to have slow or no internet access.

“I see our model as being mixed delivery” with in-person and telehealth, said Tekla Johnson, First Born’s program director. “It makes a lot of sense to be able to see families regularly and take away the barriers to that happening.”

Benefits of home visits backed up by data

Across the country, home visitation programs have shown positive outcomes, including increased school readiness and access to healthcare, according to a Department of Health and Human Services review of research on 50 early childhood home visiting programs over 40 years. 

Ivan de la Rosa, a social worker and associate professor at New Mexico State University, researched the First Born model in its early days. 

In one 2005 study of 109 families in southern New Mexico, he found that parents who received home visitation services were better equipped to seek out emotional and material assistance from family members and their community. They also reported being better caregivers, and were more likely to view their child as a positive aspect of their life instead of a burden. 

Rebecca Kilburn, an economist at the University of New Mexico’s School of Medicine who has also studied home visitations, said she was surprised by the impact on parents. 

“For a lot of parents, improvements in outcomes take place right away, like completing their education, working more or being less likely to be involved in criminal activity,” she said. “Some of the most immediate payoffs in terms of monetary benefits are actually due to changes we see in the parents.”  

Trevizo-Carlos has seen those changes firsthand as both a mom and a professional home visitor. 

She said she has met and helped parents with all kinds of problems, from a mother who was having trouble getting her son to sleep alone, to one who needed help leaving an abusive relationship. 

“Families have good intentions; sometimes they just don’t have the resources,” she said. “With a home visitor giving information to families and supporting them, children tend to do a lot better.” 

This story originally published March 10, 2022, on Youth Today.

New Mexico to offer equal pay to Native American teachers

By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico will begin to offer equal pay to dozens of Indigenous language teachers as part of a new law aimed at improving K-12 education for Native American students and preserving their languages and cultures.

A bill signed into law Thursday counts educators who are certified in the Indigenous languages taught in public schools and spoken by New Mexico’s 23 tribes and pueblos as entry-level teachers eligible for the state’s minimum salaries.

Earlier this week, the state raised the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 for a nine-month contract, up from $40,000. Together, the new measures will ensure that some 155 Indigenous language certificate holders will be paid at least that much if they have a teaching contract. Paid as “teaching assistants,” some had been earned as little as $14,000.

“The teachers who carry on this integral piece of the culture and history of so many in our state deserve to be paid as the educational professionals they are,” said Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The bill signing comes as Lujan Grisham’s administration fights a decade-old lawsuit brought by parents of underserved students, including Native Americans.

A plan to address the lawsuit, which ruled against her in 2018, hasn’t been released. Tribal leaders said in October that they hadn’t been consulted as promised.

Around 11% of New Mexico students are Native American. Public and tribal schools in New Mexico teach eight native languages, including Zuni and Navajo, with language teachers certified through a process run by tribal authorities.

Those tribal language certificate holders are qualified to track in K-12 schools but haven’t been eligible for minimum salary protections enjoyed by traditional teachers who complete a four-year university degree in subjects like English or Spanish. Universities don’t offer degree programs for most tribal languages.

While at least one school district in New Mexico voluntarily paid the language teachers equitably, there was no minimum salary, and some made as little as $14,000 per year as teaching assistants despite performing the work of a teacher, like planning lessons, developing curriculum and leading classrooms.

“This is a watershed moment for Native language teachers,” said Rose Chavez, a Keres teacher at Bernalillo High School and a member of nearby Kewa Pueblo. “I feel very honored and praised.”

Chavez’ boss at the high school started offering her equal pay in recent years and spoke publicly in support of the changes this year.

Native American leaders welcome the new law but say the governor has more work to do.

“I can appreciate her signing the bill, but I wish that the administration would be much more of a contributor,” said Rep. Derrick Lente, of Sandia Pueblo, who sponsored the legislation. “Our students will be able to be taught their native tongue by the experts within our own communities.”

Native American advocates have described recent efforts by the state to address Native American students as a piecemeal approach. They welcome increased teacher pay, as well as changes to the social studies curriculum.

But Indigenous students still lag behind their peers in internet and technology access and are more likely to attend schools that have lacked equal access to funding for buildings for decades.

“The tribal folks push but a lot of their efforts fall to the wayside,” Lente said.

Lujan Grisham also signed a law codifying federal protections for Native American children in foster care. The law gives tribes the right to intervene on behalf of their members and prioritizes adoptions with fellow tribal members. The federal protections are being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.

This story originally published March 07, 2022, on Youth Today.

New Mexico’s first Native family court points to success keeping kids in tribal communities

By Murat Oztaskin

Veronica Krupnick, a member of the Hopi Tribe who also has Navajo and Jemez Pueblo heritage, was six years old when she entered New Mexico’s child welfare system, ultimately severing her connections to her family, community and culture.

“It felt like my whole world was completely different,” said Krupnick, now 26 and a program coordinator for foster youth advocacy with New Mexico’s Court-Appointed Special Advocates. “It’s really hard to function fully when your whole world just gets turned upside down.”

Today, a case like Krupnick’s would come before New Mexico’s Native family court, which was inaugurated in January, 2020, with the intention of helping prevent the separation of Indigenous children from their families and tribes. The court, based in Albuquerque, is dedicated to hearing child welfare cases that fall under the Indian Child Welfare Act, or ICWA. 

Child welfare advocates, attorneys and court officials say the court has already achieved success in keeping families together by strengthening tribal involvement. 

The fact that none of the cases to come before the ICWA court has resulted in termination of parental rights is “a big deal,” said Bette Fleishman, the executive director of Pegasus Legal Services for Children, an Albuquerque-based law firm that represents a majority of the children who appear before the court, and which was involved in its planning.

“The intent of all foster care, but much more with the Indian court, the ICWA court, is to reunite these kids back with their families, back with their tribes, back with their culture as soon as possible,” Fleishman said.

Native children more likely to be removed from their families

ICWA, enacted in 1978, was intended to address a widespread crisis of Native American children being separated from their families and tribal communities by non-Native entities, primarily state child welfare departments and private adoption agencies.

New Mexico’s Native family court: Veronica Krupnick, young woman with long dark hair weaing a taupe dress and turquoise earrings smiles into camera.
Krupnick says her adoptive parents were supportive, but the separation from her culture and community was painful. (Gabriela Campos)

Studies indicate that until ICWA, up to a third of Native children in the U.S. were experiencing this kind of removal, and that 85 percent of that population were placed outside their families and communities, even if suitable relatives were available to take them in.

An American Indian child is still four times likelier than a non-Native child to be removed from their parents. A main priority of New Mexico’s ICWA court is to prevent the breakup of Native families by not removing Native children from their parents or relatives absent an imminent threat, and by working with Native communities to identify placement preferences. 

Krupnick, who was eventually adopted by a white couple after an attempted placement with her grandfather, recalled the pain of separation from her community. She praised her adoptive parents, whom she described as supportive, but said there was still a void in her life. 

“It was definitely a big hurt for me,” she said.

Some 10 percent of the state’s foster children fall under ICWA — roughly equivalent to the percentage of the state’s Native population over all, according to the latest census data. The court had served a total of 47 children as of January.

Catherine Begaye, the ICWA court’s presiding judge, who is Navajo/Diné, was instrumental in planning the court and establishing its founding principle of tribal involvement at all stages of a case. She is the only Native American to preside over any of the sixteen ICWA courts currently in operation around the country.

Begaye said that fostering even greater tribal involvement is a primary goal of the court for 2022. From the perspective of the tribes, preferential placement is “how their tribe is going to survive in the future,” she said. 

“It’s how they pass down their language and their culture and their traditions,” she said. “And so we really want to include them more directly as teachers for us in the system.”

Begaye said nearly seventy percent of the 26 children who have active ICWA cases before the court are currently in preferential placements, which are, in descending order: A member of the child’s extended family; a family elsewhere within their tribe; or with a Native family outside their tribe. Two-thirds were placed with their parents or relatives while their cases were pending. 

Statewide, less than forty percent of all foster youth are placed with relatives, based on data from October, 2021.

Crucially, Begaye said, the ICWA court has “not had even a motion to terminate parental rights filed for any of our families,” even in rulings that have placed children in guardianships, nor have any of the parents made a reappearance before the court. In New Mexico, as in most states, termination of parental rights is irreversible except in specific, limited circumstances.

Going beyond the federal law

New Mexico’s first Native family court: Judge Catherine Begaye, middle-aged woman with long grey hair wearing black judge's robes stands in light wood paneled courtroom smiling into the camera.
Catherine Begaye, the ICWA court’s presiding judge, who is Navajo/Diné, is the only Native American to preside over any of the sixteen ICWA courts currently in operation around the country. (Gabriela Campos)

New Mexico is home to 23 sovereign tribal nations — 19 Pueblos, three Apache tribes, and part of the Navajo Nation — each of which is culturally distinct. In an effort to ensure that Native foster children can continue being raised in their tribal cultures, the New Mexican government has mandated cooperation between state entities, including the ICWA court, and caseworkers, ICWA experts, and other representatives from each child’s tribal nation, starting from the very beginning of each case.

“We have really committed to having the tribes at the forefront of all of our ICWA work,” said Cynthia Chavers, the field deputy director of the state’s Children, Youth, and Families Department (CYFD), which oversees the state’s foster system. “The state should not be telling the tribes how we should handle ICWA cases. We need to really rely on that government-to-government relationship.” 

Advocates, caseworkers, and lawyers in New Mexico have found success in certain practices that exceed the federal ICWA requirements, Chavers said. For example, she noted that the federal law requires a child’s tribe to be contacted only once that child is already in foster care and separated from family. In New Mexico, CYFD notifies a child’s tribe as soon as the state receives a report to its child welfare hotline and accepts an investigation into a child’s family. 

Another important divergence with federal standards relates to the definition, Chavers said, of who can be considered a relative to a child in foster care. She noted the federal law’s relatively narrow definition of extended family with whom a child can be placed: A grandparent; step-parent; aunt or uncle; brother or sister; or first or second cousin. 

“That definition doesn’t really allow the inclusion of family members from an Indian person’s perspective,” Chavers said. “There are clan relationships where there may not be a direct blood linkage from the child to that person, but they’re considered family to that child by the tribe.” 

New Mexico allows its tribes to define what constitutes extended family. 

“For each tribe and Pueblo, who is family to that child may look different,” Chavers said. 

Lawmakers in New Mexico, led by state representative Georgene Louis, a Democrat, have enshrined such practices in state law by passing a ICWA bill in the 2022 legislative term, which ended on Thursday. The legislation now heads to the desk of the Democratic governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has publicly supported the effort.

An added benefit of a state-level law, Chavers said, would be to protect ICWA practices in New Mexico from challenges to the viability of the federal ICWA, potentially from a case now before the Supreme Court: Brackeen v. Haaland, a lawsuit brought against the federal government by the states of Texas, Louisiana, and Indiana, as well as individual plaintiffs. 

The suit alleges ICWA’s mandate that Native foster children be placed with Native families amounts to racial discrimination, violating the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. The plaintiffs have also argued that by applying the law to state-level adoption proceedings, the federal government violates federalism principles protected by the 10th Amendment. 

Following a controversial ruling of the law as unconstitutional in a federal district court in north Texas, the case fell to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, in New Orleans, which in April released a long and convoluted ruling in which none of the opinions of its 17 judges commanded a majority, setting the stage for the Supreme Court to weigh in. ICWA activists fear an adverse ruling may invalidate the federal law altogether.

Advocates seek to expand Native family court as state child welfare agency struggles to enact reforms

CYFD is in the midst of enacting a series of reforms mandated by a separate lawsuit. The resulting agreement, known as the Kevin S. Settlement, was reached in March, 2020, by the department and a collection of litigants, including Pegasus and Public Counsel, the world’s largest pro-bono public-interest law firm, which sued CYFD in 2018 on ​​behalf of more than a dozen youth and advocacy organizations. 

The lawsuit alleged that New Mexico repeatedly failed to provide the children in its care — including Native children — with safe and stable placements, as well as necessary behavioral health services.

New Mexico’s Native family court: Judge Catherine Begaye, middle-aged woman with long grey hair wearing open black judge's robe with peach colored blouse standing in front of a white wall with several framed photos smiles into camera.
Begaye says that fostering even greater tribal involvement is a primary goal of the court. Preferential placement is “how their tribe is going to survive in the future.” (Gabriela Campos)

One of the settlement’s four appendices focuses entirely on ICWA cases, and requires the state, with input from New Mexico’s tribes and Pueblos, to create processes promoting traditional first-line interventions for at-risk Native children; to recruit more Native families willing to foster children unrelated to them; and to assist in the offering of traditional ceremonies to Native children in the foster system, among other measures. 

In their first annual report, released last year, the settlement’s co-neutrals, who are overseeing the progress of these reforms, concluded that CYFD has met performance standards for only two of the 15 requirements thus far: The creation of a dedicated ICWA unit within the department, and the hiring of a full-time employee dedicated to “culturally responsive services” for Native children in state custody.

Still, the court’s supporters point to the number of successful reunifications it has overseen, and hope to open a second court elsewhere in the state and address a backlog of older cases.

Fleishman, the attorney who frequently represents cases before the Native family court, said the benefits are similar to those of any specialized court: It is able to draw on the expertise of a smaller group of attorneys and judges dedicated to litigating a single area of law. 

Fleishman credited the  court’s positive outcomes to its  dedication to reunification, the depth of tribal involvement and the additional allocation of resources. 

“A little more advocacy,” she said. “A little extra effort.

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

Native activists hail passage of New Mexico Indian Family Protection Act

By Steve Jansen

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico lawmakers have passed a bill that strengthens protections for Native American children in state care. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is expected to sign it into law soon. 

The New Mexico Indian Family Protection Act enshrines in state law key provisions of the federal Indian Child Welfare Act, which gives preference to Native families and communities when it comes to fostering or adopting Indigenous children. 

Passing a state law was a priority for Native activists because the federal law is being challenged in court, and some fear it could be weakened or even struck down entirely. Brackeen v. Haaland, a lawsuit concerning the adoption of a Navajo youth by a non-Native family, is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This is huge,” said Jacqueline Yalch, president of the New Mexico Tribal Indian Child Welfare Consortium, social services director of the Pueblo of Isleta, and an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Isleta. “These added protections really focus on the spirit of the intent of [the federal Indian Child Welfare Act], and it’s coming back to the focus of children, families, tribes and culture.”  

According to testimony during the legislative session, 60 percent of Indigenous youth in state foster care are in preferred placements with extended family, a kinship placement, or with a Native American family in another tribe, pueblo or nation.

In January 2020, New Mexico established its first Native family court dedicated to hearing cases that fall under the federal law. Child welfare advocates, attorneys and court officials say it has already achieved success keeping more Native children with their families and communities, but a backlog of cases remains

“Implementation of federal ICWA in New Mexico and other states was flawed,” said Heather Yazzie-Kinlacheeny, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and policy fellow at Bold Futures, a New Mexico nonprofit focused on policy research, place-based organizing and cultural shifts.

The state law would also go farther than the federal law in some ways — for example, by requiring the state to give tribes 24-hour notice before removing a Native child from their home. The federal law only requires such notification after the child has been removed. 

Additionally, if state child welfare authorities are not able to place a Native American youth with a Native family, they must try again to seek out preferred placement options for these children every six months.

Stakeholders say that the bill is the result of a multi-year collaborative effort between many of New Mexico’s 23 Native American communities. The act also received input from the New Mexico Tribal-State Judicial Consortium as well as the state child welfare agency and Native American social workers.

“It wasn’t crafted by attorneys or systems people,” said Angel Charley, a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna and executive director of the New Mexico-based Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women. “It really was community people coming together telling their stories.”

Phillip A. Perez, former governor and current council member of Nambe Pueblo, echoed Charley’s sentiment.

“It is because of this tribally-led process that we are where we are today,” he said. “The premise of the state Indian Family Protection Act is based on the lived experience of our front-line tribal workers.”  

The bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Daniel A. Ivey-Soto (D-Bernalillo), Rep. Georgene Louis (D-Bernalillo) and Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena (D-Doña Ana). Once it becomes law, New Mexico will become the 10th state to adopt its own version of ICWA, according to Bold Futures.

Yazzie-Kinlacheeny said that IFPA will help vulnerable Native youth preserve their connections to their culture and identity.

“My parents’ decision to allow me to grow up partially with my grandparents could have been construed as improper parenting, neglect, or even abandonment,” she said. “I really wanted this bill to go through because I wanted communities in New Mexico to understand that that experience is an integral aspect to my cultural ties and the foundation of my relationship to my people.”

This story originally published Feb. 23, 2022, on Youth Today.

New Mexico to create new legal aid office for child welfare cases

By Steve Jansen

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Child welfare professionals in New Mexico are applauding passage of a bill they say will improve legal representation for youth and families impacted by foster care.

Advocates say that the creation of an independent Office of Family Representation and Advocacy will help families connect to higher quality — and better paid — legal aid. The bill, which passed during the recent legislative session, now heads to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is expected to sign it into law.

“One of the biggest things we believe the office will be able to accomplish, because it has budgetary independence from the judiciary, is that they will be able to adequately compensate attorneys,” said New Mexico Sixth Judicial District Court Judge Jennifer DeLaney, who chairs the Children’s Court Improvement Commission.

“We know that when attorneys are not adequately compensated, it’s difficult to have a reasonable caseload and to do the best job that they can,” she added.

In addition to higher compensation, Children’s Court attorneys will receive training as well as support staff, said Arika Sanchez, director of policy and advocacy at Albuquerque non-profit NMCAN.

“This leads to fewer placements and school changes, less time in foster care, higher rates of families successfully completing their reunification plans, and ultimately, the best outcomes for children and youth,” she said.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Linda Lopez (D-Bernalillo) and Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Bernalillo), also creates a 13-member family representation and advocacy oversight commission that “will work with the director to set the policy and ensure best practices,” said DeLaney. 

The office is expected to receive a $6.2 million appropriation from the general state budget, according to Sanchez.

“The structure will be similar to the public defender’s office in that there will be employed attorneys with the office as well as contractors throughout the state,” said DeLaney.

This story originally published Feb. 24, 2022, on Youth Today.

Skip to content