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New Mexico lawmakers, citing political frustrations, pull juvenile justice reform bill 

By Steve Jansen

ALBUQUERQUE — Proposed reforms to New Mexico’s juvenile sentencing rules failed to become law for a second year in a row after the bill’s sponsors pulled it, saying the legislation had been amended “beyond recognition.”

“It has been frustrating to watch as a chorus of voices was drowned out by a handful of district attorneys and other parties who have misrepresented this issue to victims of tragedy across our state,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote in a joint statement. 

New Mexico’s Senate Bill 43 would’ve banned life without parole for youth convicted of serious crimes and given youth serving long adult sentences a parole opportunity after 15 years. Such reforms have gained steam around the country and are also known as “second chance” bills. 

The bill passed the Senate, 23-15, on a party-line vote, but became a tug of war toward the end of the session, which ended Thursday. 

Senate Republicans, the prosecutors’ association, and the governor’s office — which pushed a tough-on-crime legislative package during the 2022 session — agreed on an amendment that would have bumped parole eligibility to 20 years instead of 15.

The amendment cost the bill its backers’ support. Some advocates were also concerned that language in the amendment could allow judges to stack sentences for youth, which could amount to life sentences.

“Negotiations on the second chance bill broke down in the final week of the session as demands for punitive concessions departed from evidence-based policy,” said Denali Wilson, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico and a leader of the New Mexico Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which worked on the bill.

“All children are worthy and capable of redemption, and we are proud that the sponsors of the bill rejected amendments that would have violated this truth and eroded the spirit of the legislation,” she added.

Twenty five states and the District of Columbia have passed versions of second chance legislation.

New Mexico first introduced its version during the 2021 legislative session. It came on the heels of a New Mexico Supreme Court mandate that urged lawmakers to update the state’s juvenile sentencing practices.

This story originally published Jan. 18, 2022, on Youth Today.

National Guard deploys for new emergency: Teacher shortages

By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America

ALAMOGORDO, N.M. — On past deployments Army National Guard Spc. Michael Stockwell surveilled a desolate section of the U.S.-Mexico border during a migrant surge, and guarded a ring of checkpoints and fences around New Mexico’s state Capitol after the January 2021 insurrection in Washington.

On his current mission, Stockwell helps students with assignments as a substitute science teacher at Alamogordo High School.

“You can’t act Army with these kids. You can’t speak the same way you would with another soldier with these kids. You can’t treat them the same way. You have to be careful with corrective actions,” he said with a laugh.

Dozens of National Guard Army and Air Force troops in New Mexico have been stepping in for an emergency unlike others they have responded to before: the shortage of teachers and school staff members that has tested the ability of schools nationwide to continue operating during the coronavirus pandemic.

While many other states and school districts issued pleas for substitute teachers amid omicron-driven surges in infections, New Mexico has been alone in calling out its National Guard members. In 36 of the state’s 89 school districts, guard members have traded in mission briefs for lesson plans to work for school systems.

When Stockwell first walked into the freshman science class, wearing camouflage fatigues and combat boots, some students thought he was just visiting, like a recruiter. Then he took a seat in the teacher’s chair.

“When he started taking attendance, I was like, ‘whoa,'” said Lilli Terrazas, 15, of Alamogordo. “I was kind of nervous because, like, you know — a man in a uniform. But it was cool. He helped me.”

Military substitute teachers: Man in military fatigues uniform and dark mask stands in classroom handing out papers to a student sitting at desk
Substitute teacher and New Mexico Army National Guard specialist Michael Stockwell takes a geology assignment from Lilli Terrazas, 15, at Alamogordo High School, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in Alamogordo, N.M. (Cedar Attanasio/AP)

Roughly 80 service members have volunteered to work in schools. The troops have gone through background checks and taken brief courses required for substitute teachers. As substitutes, they don’t have to learn much about curriculum, but they need to be attentive to students.

Stockwell has been filling in since late January when his students’ teacher moved to an administrative role in another school. One recent day, he shuffled through the rows of school desks, kneeling to meet students eye-to-eye as he helped them with assignments calculating the depth of the earth’s crust, and other layers of the planet.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, called out the guard to help with the acute shortages in a state that like several others has struggled to find enough educators. At least 100 schools had reported closing down for at least one day this school year.

New Mexico saw a surge of teacher retirements last fall, and there are currently around 1,000 open teaching positions in a state with about 20,000 teachers. Grisham stressed the guard deployment is a temporary measure and state officials are working to bolster the teaching force and school staff through increased pay and other strategies.

At Alamogordo High School, the teacher shortage peaked on Jan. 13, when 30 teachers, about a third of the teaching staff, were out due to illness, professional training, or family emergencies.

“Everybody was enjoying their holiday and things like that, and then they came back and were sick,” said Raeh Burns, one of two Alamogordo High School secretaries tasked with filling teaching slots each morning. “I know I’m going to have Mr. Stockwell every morning and that he’s OK to go where I need him to go.”

In some communities, there have been concerns raised about soldiers going in classrooms. In Santa Fe, the school district was asked if soldiers would wear uniforms and carry guns, school district spokesperson Cody Dynarski said. Guns were always out of the question. The district decided that soldiers would wear civilian clothing.

Ultimately, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, two of the largest urban school districts, did not receive any soldiers despite their requests as the deployments have prioritized smaller and more rural school districts.

Military substitute teachers: Man in military fatigues uniform and dark mask holding white paper with red and yellow diagram stands in classroom facing several students sitting at desks with backs to camera
Substitute teacher and New Mexico Army National Guard specialist Michael Stockwell substitute holds up a geology assignment while teaching students at Alamogordo High School, Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022, in Alamogordo, N.M. (Cedar Attanasio/AP)

Elsewhere, when given the choice, some soldiers have opted for military fatigues over civilian clothes to command respect in the classroom, particularly if they’re not much older than their students.

“I think I look like an 18-year-old out of uniform,” said Cassandra Sierra, 22, of Roswell, N.M., who has served as a substitute teacher in a high school in Hobbs.

Sierra already works with kids in her day job as a student coordinator at a military boarding school in Roswell, which has given her an edge as a substitute.

“Kids just need patience,” she said. “I think I just have a lot of patience.”

At a middle school on Alamogordo’s Holloman Air Force Base, students are used to seeing people in uniform, but not in classrooms.

“I was like, ‘Oh, we have somebody in the uniform that’s going to teach us. That’s kinda awkward.’ It was weird,” said Andrew George, 12, of his computer classes led by a woman trained in combat and with experience leading a platoon overseas. “Once she introduced herself I was like ‘Oh yeah, this is going to be fun.'”

The substitute, Lt. Amanda Zollo, works in the 911 dispatch center in Albuquerque when she’s not training or serving with the guard. She kept students on task during a lesson about cybersecurity, as they created and then attempted to break each other’s passwords.

She was subbing for a teacher who was having trouble finding childcare. The principal, Whitney Anderson, said that having Zollo’s services meant that for the first time that week she didn’t have to take over a classroom herself.

Zollo doesn’t talk about her work as an infantry officer with her students, which, after a nervous laugh, she describes as “engaging with and destroying the enemies of the U.S. in close-quarter combat.”

Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. This story was produced under RFA’s America Statehouse News Initiative.

This story originally published Feb. 18, 2022, on Youth Today.

New approach to teaching race in school divides New Mexico

By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America

ALBUQUERQUE (AP) — A proposal to overhaul New Mexico’s social studies standards has stirred debate over how race should be taught in schools, with thousands of parents and teachers weighing in on changes that would dramatically increase instruction related to racial and social identity beginning in kindergarten.

The revisions in the state are ambitious. New Mexico officials say they hope their standards can be a model for the country of social studies teaching that is culturally responsive, as student populations grow increasingly diverse.

As elsewhere, the move toward more open discussion of race has prompted angry rebukes, with some critics blasting it as racist or Marxist. But the responses also provide a window into how others are wrestling with how and when race should be taught to children beyond the polarizing debates over material branded as “critical race theory.”

The responses have not broken down along racial lines, with Indigenous and Latino parents among those expressing concern in one of the country’s least racially segregated states. While debates elsewhere have centered on the teaching of enslavement of Black people, some discussions in New Mexico, which is 49% Hispanic and 11% Native American, have focused on the legacy of Spanish conquistadors.

“We refuse to be categorized as victims or oppressors,” wrote Michael Franco, a retired Hispanic air traffic controller in Albuquerque who said the standards appeared aimed at categorizing children by race and ethnicity and undercutting the narrative of the American Dream.

The New Mexico Public Education Department’s proposed standards are aimed at making civics, history, and geography more inclusive of the state’s population so that students feel at home in the curriculum and prepared for a diverse society, according to public statements.

“Our out-of-date standards leave New Mexico students with an incomplete understanding of the complex, multicultural world they live in,” Public Education Secretary Designate Kurt Steinhaus said. “It’s our duty to provide them with a complete education based on known facts. That’s what these proposed standards will do.”

The plan calls for students to learn about different “identity groups” in kindergarten and “unequal power relations” in later grades. One part of the draft standards would require high school students to “assess how social policies and economic forces offer privilege or systemic inequity” for opportunities for members of identity groups. In a first for the state, ethnic studies and the history of the LGBT rights movement also would be introduced into the curriculum.

An Albuquerque pastor, the Rev. Sylvia Miller-Mutia, welcomed the change in her written comment, arguing children see race early, and that learning about it in school can dismantle stereotypes early. When her eldest child was 3, she said that her Filipino dad wasn’t American because he has dark skin, while her mother was American because she has light skin.

“Already, a cultural script that said to be American is to be light-skinned had somehow seeped into my preschooler’s consciousness,” Miller-Mutia said in an interview.

Many Democratic-run states across the country are looking to diversify those cultural scripts, while Republican-run ones are putting up guardrails against possible changes. California was among the first states last year to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement. Texas passed a law requiring teachers to present multiple perspectives on all issues and one Indiana lawmaker proposed that teachers be required to take a “neutral” position.

The education department in New Mexico is reviewing over 1,300 letters on the proposed standards along with dozens of comments from an online forum in November.

Francis Vigil, a member of the Zia Pueblo tribe, spoke in support of the standards during the online forum. Afterward, he said the proposed standards reflect the contributions and diversity of the state’s Native American tribal communities.

“Public school systems have, and continue to, dismiss the contributions, culture, history, language and traditions of the local communities they serve, and this applies to all demographics and is not only relegated to Native American communities,” said Vigil, a tribal education specialist with the National Indian Education Association and the parent of high-school aged children in Rio Rancho, a suburb of Albuquerque.

The standards were written with input from 64 people around the state, mostly social studies teachers, and are to be published next spring with revisions.

Among the authors was Wendy Leighton, a Santa Fe middle school history teacher. As a leader of the revisions for the history section of the standards, she said the goal was to take marginalized groups like indigenous, LGBTQ and other people “that are often not in textbooks or pushed to the side and making them kind of more closer to the center.”

Identity was the center of a class she taught in December, where students learning about the Salem witch trials identified which groups were at the center of power — clergy, men — and which were on the margins — women, servants.

“What’s a marginalized group in America today?” she asked the class.

State Republicans have argued that parents should teach their children sensitive topics like race and that there are bigger priorities in a state that ranks toward the bottom in academic achievement.

“The focus that I feel is urgent is math, reading and writing. Not social studies standards,” said state Rep. Rebecca Dow, one of six candidates for the Republican nomination for governor next year, hoping to unseat Democratic incumbent Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Some parents who wrote public comments said they would rather homeschool their children than have them learn under the proposed standards.

“Struggle and adversity have never been limited to one specific race or ethnicity. Neither has privilege,” wrote Lucas Tieme, a father of five public school students, who are white.

Tieme, a bus driver for Rio Rancho public schools, said his wife was homeschooled as a child. That experience makes the couple ready to take their kids out of school if it comes to that.

Some parents who support the changes generally are skeptical of introducing race for the youngest students.

Sheldon Pickering, 41, has two adopted children who are Black, and has seen casual racism against his kids escalate as they reach adolescence in Farmington, near the southeast corner of Utah and the eastern part of the Navajo Nation. He has had “the talk” with his Black son, instructing him how to interact with police. But Pickering, who is white, worries about schools introducing too much too soon.

“If we start too early, we rob kids of this rare time in their life that they have just to be kids,” said Pickering, a cleaning business owner. “They just get to be these amazing little kids and enjoy life without preconceived notions, without context.”

Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. This story was produced under RFA’s America Statehouse News Initiative.

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

Educators skeptical of states’ plans to solve staffing shortages with bureaucrats, troops

By Kristi Eaton

TULSA — At least three states have called on public employees or National Guard troops to fill in as substitute teachers, bus drivers and other school and childcare workers in response to severe staffing shortages resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The scramble to find enough replacement workers to keep schools and childcare centers from shutting down underscores the country’s haphazard approach to the health crisis, now in its second year. Some teacher advocates also say it devalues their profession and ignores the longstanding problems causing high turnover in education since before the pandemic. 

“Long term, we have to make teaching more desirable,” said Katherine Bishop, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. 

Oklahoma is among the states that have called in reinforcements for schools and daycares from the public sector. Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, issued an executive order this week allowing state employees to work as substitute teachers while keeping their pay and benefits at their regular jobs. The order did not address background checks or training. 

“I’ve said from the beginning that our students deserve an in-person education and our schools need to stay open,” Stitt said in a statement. “The state has a responsibility to do what we can to help make that happen.”

In New Mexico, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced her government was streamlining its licensure process for substitute teachers and daycare workers, while maintaining the same training and background check requirements. State workers there will now be allowed to use administrative leave to work in schools and childcare centers. 

“Our schools are a critical source of stability for our kids — we know they learn better in the classroom and thrive among their peers,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “Our kids, our teachers and our parents deserve as much stability as we can provide during this time of uncertainty.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, announced a policy allowing state employees to use volunteer days with supervisor approval to work in public schools as substitute teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria staff. 

Other states are seeking to make recruitment easier by changing or easing licensure requirements. In Kansas, for example, anyone 18 and older who has a high school diploma and passes a background check can work as a substitute teacher now.

The programs have already attracted interest. As of Thursday afternoon, a representative with Oklahoma’s state Office of Management and Enterprise Services said 171 state employees had registered to substitute teach. 

Jami Cole, a fifth-grade teacher in Duncan, said the order may help alleviate shortages in Oklahoma City, but she doesn’t think it will help rural school districts like hers. 

“Nobody’s going to drive an hour and a half down here to substitute my class,” she said. “It might help the metro area, but it’s not going to help anybody else.”

She said the pandemic exacerbated existing teacher and substitute teacher shortages.

“Our substitutes, they at least need to know what’s going on during the day,” she said. “If you have the majority of your staff out, it becomes a safety issue.”

This is one of many stories included in Youth Today’s OST reporting initiative.
This story originally published Jan. 21, 2022, on Youth Today.

New Mexico child welfare agency seeks more funding as lawmakers convene

By Steve Jansen

ALBUQUERQUE — The New Mexico Children, Youth, and Families Department (CYFD), which oversees child protective services, asked the state Legislature for a $41.5 million increase to its budget for 2023. 

Increased funding for the agency is among a number of child welfare proposals expected to come up for debate during the regular session scheduled for Jan. 18 – Feb. 17 at the New Mexico State Capitol in Santa Fe.

CYFD is requesting $254,948,200 for its general fund, which makes up about 70 percent of its overall budget. It was given $213,423,200 for 2022. 

Along with expanding child abuse prevention services and foster care support, CYFD says that the additional funding will help the department meet the terms of the Kevin S. v. Jacobsen settlement. 

The lawsuit, settled March 2020, alleged that CYFD systematically retraumatizes youth in care. CYFD is requesting a special appropriation of $250,000 to support a third party contract for monitoring the settlement’s implementation. 

CYFD’s legislative agenda also includes the passage of the state Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). 

The federal ICWA, signed into law in 1978, requires the placement of Native American foster children or adopted youth with Indigenous families. CYFD officials say that they’re currently working with Rep. Georgene Lewis (D- Bernalillo), chair of the House State Government, Elections, and Indian Affairs Committee, in tailoring specific protections for New Mexico’s 23 federally recognized tribes and pueblos. New Mexico established the nation’s sixth ICWA court in 2020.

“We will once again pursue and promote the state ICWA bill as the law of the land of New Mexico,” said CYFD cabinet secretary Barbara Vigil during the New Mexico Children’s Law Institute Conference on Jan. 12. 

Vigil replaced embattled former CYFD leader Brian Blalock in October 2021. 

“We will ask the Legislature to pass a bill that would codify and extend the federal law, strengthening protections for Native American families, children, and communities,” she said.

Some child welfare advocates are throwing their weight behind the Family Representation and Advocacy Act. House Bill 46, sponsored by Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Bernalillo), would create an Office of Family Representation and Advocacy separate from the Children’s Court. A similar piece of legislation passed the state Senate by a 27-12 margin during the 2021 session, but never made it to a vote on the House floor. Backers of the proposal say that the change will ensure due process and procedural fairness, decrease time to permanency, and result in a more efficient resolution of cases. 

“Right now, those attorneys are contracted through the Administrative Office of the Courts, and they represent the kids and the parents,” said Arika Sanchez, director of policy and advocacy at NMCAN, an Albuquerque-based organization that helps youth transition out of foster care. 

“The idea is to create an independent office outside of the courts that’s similar to the Public Defender’s office … that’s responsible for hiring, training, and overseeing those attorneys so that we can have improved advocacy for children and parents,” she said.

Sen. Elizabeth “Liz” Stefanics (D-Bernalillo, Lincoln, San Miguel, Santa Fe, Torrance, and Valencia) pre-filed an act that would appropriate three months of transitional support for those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits if a recipient’s increased job earnings result in a loss of program eligibility. Bill numbers aren’t attached to Senate pre-filings.

Last week, the New Mexico Human Services Department extended emergency SNAP benefits for the month of January for food insecure families struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If taking a small pay raise means you’ll lose your SNAP benefits, which are worth more than the raise, many people may feel that they have no choice but to turn down the raise,” said Amber Wallin, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, an Albuquerque child well-being advocacy nonprofit that supports Stefanics’ proposal.  

“We know that fixing the cliff effect is imperative to helping families work their way out of poverty,” she added.

On the juvenile justice side, proponents of “Second Chance” reforms will fight for the passage of legislation that would reform the state’s juvenile sentencing practices, something state courts have been asking for.

The legislative change is backed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico and the New Mexico Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, which has fought for earlier parole eligibility for youth serving de-facto life sentences for serious crimes committed as teenagers. 

A bill co-sponsored by Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-Bernalillo), Chasey, and Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil (D-Bernalillo) is expected to be filed during the session.

The New Mexico Legislature tackles the budget for 30 days in even-numbered years and broader policies for 60 days in odd-numbered years. 

The 2022 session kicks off at noon today and includes a virtual State of the State speech by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who’s running for reelection this year. Lujan Grisham, whose legislative priorities include a $10,000 raise to public school teachers, is proposing an $8.4 billion budget for the 2023 fiscal year. Policymakers in the Legislative Finance Committee, headed by Rep. Patricia Lundstrom (D-McKinley and San Juan) and Sen. George Muñoz (D-Cibola, McKinley, and San Juan), are lobbying for $8.46 billion.

This story originally published Jan. 18, 2022, on Youth Today.

New Mexico education officials miss transparency deadline

By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — An initiative aimed at providing greater accountability for public spending on education missed its inaugural deadline.

The New Mexico Public Education Department acknowledged Tuesday that it missed a year-end deadline to launch a website to provide details about how much schools spend and on what.

The site went live following inquiries Monday from The Associated Press, but without financial information from most individual schools.

Lawmakers and transparency advocates decried the delay, which ran afoul of state statute.

“Yes, by missing the deadline PED is out of compliance with the law. It is no surprise considering that the governor has had three public education (secretaries) in just two years,” wrote Republican Rep. Rebecca Dow, of Truth or Consequences, in an email.

Dow was one of three lawmakers who advanced the law to create the transparency portal, allocating $3 million to fund the effort.

The deadline was the first of an annual reporting schedule mandated by a transparency law passed by the state Legislature in 2020 and signed by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Lujan Grisham is running for reelection this year, and Dow is running for the Republican nomination in a bid to challenge her.

The agency had promoted the website starting in August with a countdown clock set to hit zero on Dec. 31. On Monday and Tuesday, the countdown clock on the website read “0,” while a note below said the project is “on schedule and on budget.”

“It’s disappointing that they missed this deadline,” said Shannon Kunkel, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. “Public officials have a responsibility to get timely information out that would affect policy decisions.”

The state transparency website could make it easier to see details of how much schools spend on administrative costs, like central office workers, versus classroom costs, like teacher salaries and student supplies.

Data on the website could inform policymakers who sit down next week to forge the state’s education budget, likely to exceed $3 billion.

“It is imperative for parents and taxpayers to easily see and understand how school districts and charter schools are spending their dollars since this spending directly impacts their children and they may have good questions or suggestions on how best to spend this money,” Fred Nathan Jr., executive director of Think New Mexico, a nonpartisan education policy group, said in a statement.

On Monday, Think New Mexico renewed support for a law that would cap growth in administrative spending in school districts, arguing classroom spending is more impactful than administrative spending.

Citing data from 2007 to 2017, the organization says administrative spending on central office staff grew 34% while spending on teacher salaries and classroom materials grew by around 4%.

After questions from the AP on Monday, the Public Education Department held a meeting with its software vendor, according to spokeswoman Judy Robinson.

The site went live before noon Tuesday, with a note that it’s a work in progress.

“The portal was ready in mid-December and ‘soft-launched’ at that time,” Robinson said.

That beta testing came at the tail end of a planned six-month window for school district superintendents and financial officers to test-drive the software. Robinson said those users flagged concerns about the site’s functionality.

Other advocates pointed out that the website published on Tuesday is incomplete. It includes district spending data but lacks school-level data except for charter schools.

“The intent was always to create a site whereby any parents, principal, educator, policymaker could get online and see a budget for each school. And that’s the piece that’s missing from the site as it stands right now,” said Amanda Aragon, executive director of NewMexicoKidsCAN, another nonpartisan education policy group.

In a statement, Robinson said the department won’t begin to collect the school-level data until fiscal year 2023, which starts this summer, long after the education budget is written into law by the Legislature and approved or vetoed by the governor.

Robinson wrote that the Public Education Department “believes it is following the law and meeting the requirements of the legislation.”

Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. This story was produced under RFA’s America Statehouse News Initiative.

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

Photo essay: Former foster youth navigate motherhood

Samuel Gilbert and Gabriela Campos
Photos by Gabriela Campos

Youth who age out of the foster care system face myriad challenges associated with family instability and poverty. They often lack basic life skills or the support network needed to transition to adulthood.

Seven out of 10 girls who age out of the foster care system will become pregnant before the age of 21, according to the National Foster Youth Institute. Youth Today spent time with two women in New Mexico who were in foster care as youth as they reflect on their own childhoods in the system and their hopes for their children.


Alyssa Davis, 24, snuggles with her two eight-month-old identical twin sons, Samuel and Dean, while her eldest son, Zeppelin, four, naps in his bedroom. Davis is a former foster youth from New Mexico who spent 12 years in the system before aging out at age 18. Life was full of instability with 30 different foster homes and 12 different schools over years.

“Moving around so much, there’s no time for you to go to school and learn,” says Davis.

Foster life was often chaotic. In many homes, Davis says she and other foster children were “stacked” in triple bunk beds or made to sleep on couches, pads on the floor, or even in shared beds, which is illegal.

“They get $650 for each kid that you have,” says Davis of foster parents.

Davis’s husband checks in with the twins at their home in Albuquerque. The twins, Samuel and Dean, lay in the couple’s living room, below a set of matching mobiles. The carpeted floor of the three-bedroom apartment is covered with toys — stuffed animals, plush blankets and toy cars — including a fire truck with a working hose.

Davis plays with her twins at their home in Albuquerque. Davis is a Youth Advocate for NMCAN. Through her work with NMCAN, Davis has advocated for the foster youth tax credit, expansion of the tuition waiver for foster youth, and the Fostering Connections Act, which extends support for young people ages 18-21. Davis was not eligible for extended foster care when she aged out.

A study by Child Trends found a clear association between extended care and better youth outcomes in terms of employment, education, rates of homeless and the likelihood of early pregnancy and parenthood.

Davis, a published poet, looks through a collection of her poetry from 2010-2014. She began writing when she entered the foster system as a young child. She could usually find a pen and would scribble rhymes on tissues, small pieces of paper, whatever she could find.

“They started as small silly things,” she says, that evolved into reflective and, at times, heart-wrenching poems reflecting the pain of foster life.

“Remembering the sadness on mothers’ faces as their children cried for them, but stripped away,” Davis reads from one of her leather-bound books, filled front to back with poems and drawings from classmates.

“Particular moments pop into my mind when I see that,” she says.

A look into one of Davis’ collections of poetry from her youth.

Davis, Samuel, and Zeppelin outside their apartment days after Halloween.

Davis had Zeppelin not long after she aged out of foster care. At the time, New Mexico had no extended care to support those aging out.

“It would’ve been really nice just because I wouldn’t have had to worry about housing,” says Davis, who worked numerous jobs as she pursued her high school diploma. “I wish I could have prioritized education, but I was busy trying to survive.”

On her 18th birthday, she moved into her own home. She was frightened and couldn’t sleep well.

“It just felt weird and very lonely,” says Davis. “I was very lonely for a long time there.” 

Davis, like many 18-year-olds, lacked basic adult skills. Unlike most of her peers, she had no support system to help soften the transition into adulthood. She had never been taught to drive and had to learn to navigate the bus system as a young woman living in a rough part of Albuquerque.

“That was scary. I got lost a lot of the time,” she recalls.

Davis says she rarely had a working phone and had never learned to cook. Budgeting or managing money was utterly foreign to her. She built up credit card debt and broke a lease that cost her and the other tenants — all former foster youth — four thousand dollars.

“These are things we were never taught,” says Davis.

Davis’ son Zeppelin searches through a basket of toy cars and trucks looking for the perfect vehicle for his race track.

As a foster youth, Davis got used to having nothing. She is making sure that her children will not experience that.

Davis budgets the entire year in spring after she and her husband get their tax return. She places funds in envelopes marked “Christmas,” “Zeppelin’s birthday,” and other important dates. She looks up events of the year, such as the Christmas tree lighting, the Balloon Fiesta, and the Day of the Dead Parade, and budgets for them, including snacks for the whole family.


Joanna Delaney sits on her couch with her daughter, Violet, three, and three of their many cats. Delaney, a foster youth from Albuquerque, has always loved animals. Their presence helps create a sense of comfort for Delaney, who grew up in a family of nine.

‘They give me a reason to get up, get going, and do stuff,” she says.

Delaney, 22, a mother of two, was briefly put into foster care as a toddler and again at age 17 when she entered New Day Transitional Living Program, a program that provides support and housing to homeless and system-impacted youth. She felt isolated and depressed in her own apartment. She wanted a cat to help her cope, but that was not allowed.

“I was really lonely and wasn’t allowed to have anything with me to make my transition easier,” says Delaney. “I grew up with seven siblings in my house and two parents. I was never alone. The quiet was too much for me.”

Delaney adjusts the tiara on her daughter Violet’s head to complete her flowered princess outfit for Halloween at their apartment in Albuquerque.

Delaney knocks on the door of a neighbor while trick or treating with her daughter Violet at their apartment complex in Albuquerque on Halloween night.

Delaney looks down and speaks gently to her one-year-old son, Orion, in their apartment in Albuquerque. At age 18, Delaney left the Transitional Living Program after meeting a boyfriend. After a period of transitional housing and homelessness, the two moved into an apartment. Soon after, she got pregnant.

“It’s very quickly that people that were in foster care have their own kids,” says Delaney. “They don’t have a family growing up, so typically, what I have noticed, they try to recreate a family setting immediately. They crave it.”

She says her ex was a troubled young man and became abusive as the relationship progressed (they are no longer together). According to Delaney, he had 36 different foster homes and placements growing up and had mental health issues rooted in his experiences in the system.

“I don’t know anyone coming out of foster care that hasn’t experienced some really terrible stuff,” she says.

Delaney gently brushes her daughter Violet’s hair with a soft comb.

“She hates the other one,” says Delaney, referring to the hard bristles of another brush.

Like many skills associated with motherhood, learning to brush her daughter’s hair was new to Delaney.

“Like, my parents never taught me how to brush my hair, take care of myself, take a shower. So that’s an everyday struggle for me,” says Delaney

According to Delaney, the foster system, including extended care, did not provide adequate parenting guidance for her with the basic skills of adulthood.

“In foster care, they don’t teach you how to cook, how to shop — they don’t teach you much of anything,” she adds. “So you don’t really have the skills you would get having parents to teach you that.”

Delaney chases after her daughter Violet as they trick-or-treat in their apartment complex on Halloween night in Albuquerque.

This photo essay originally published Jan. 11, 2022, on Youth Today.


Overdue education plan frustrates New Mexico native leaders

By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s plan to address the needs of underserved Indigenous students hasn’t been shared with tribal leaders or the public despite promises made by state officials that they would do so last year.

Tribal leaders were expecting to be invited to comment on a draft last October, ahead of a public release of the plan by Dec. 1 that did not happen.

“When it comes to promises, and it is a serious thing, it should have been followed up already,” said Mark Mitchell, recently named chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents 20 Native American tribes in New Mexico and Texas.

The New Mexico Public Education Department, known as PED, had hired former Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García to write the plan.

García said she submitted a draft in early October and understood at the time that state education officials would refine and format it. But she never heard back from them.

“I don’t know what happened after that. That would be, I think, a good question for PED or the governor’s office,” she said.

The education department declined to comment Tuesday on why it failed to meet its self-imposed goal to release a draft for public comment by Dec. 1.

In recent months the agency told lawmakers it has unfilled open positions and other staffing issues and has asked for additional staff specifically to address the lawsuit.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the administration will release the plan “in the near future.” She declined to comment on the governor’s response to the October letter from the All Pueblo Council of Governors requesting a meeting to discuss the plan.

But Sackett added: “Tribal consultation and meaningful government-to-government relations have been a guiding principle of this administration since the governor came into office, and that has not changed.”

Mitchell said the tribes never got a response to their letter.

What will the plan cover?

The plan is aimed at addressing a 2018 court ruling that found that Native American, low-income, disabled, and English-learning students were not receiving a sufficient education, accounting for around 70% of the state’s K-12 population. Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has tried unsuccessfully to get the ruling dismissed.

Lujan Grisham’s administration has increased public education funding and is proposing pay raises for teachers and more money for the Indian Education Act in the legislative session, which begins this month.

Indigenous education advocates have welcomed a recent move by Lujan Grisham to increase Native American studies in social studies curriculum.

But three years into Lujan Grisham’s first term, her administration still hasn’t released a comprehensive plan to address education failures laid bare by the lawsuit.

“I hope it doesn’t come out days before the session and we’re expected to embrace it,” said state Rep. Derrick Lente, a Sandia Pueblo Democrat, who said Steinhaus told him on Dec. 20 that the plan was still pending approval by Lujan Grisham.

The education plan would set forth budget priorities, but advocates have said it should also track which programs are effective and give more power to tribes in their discretion of how to spend state education money.

Without a comprehensive state plan for addressing tribal education inequities, Lujan Grisham’s education funding increases represent “a very piecemeal approach unmeasurable in terms of any way that you can assess whether we in fact are making progress,” said former Cochiti Pueblo governor Regis Pecos, who attended the meeting with Steinhaus and confirmed Lente’s account.

An education department spokeswoman, Judy Robinson, declined to comment on the meeting that Steinhaus attended.

Robinson defended the formation of the draft, saying that tribal governments were invited to comment on a very early form of it in August and that revisions are part of an “ongoing process.”

That early draft, obtained by the Associated Press, contained no specific or measurable action items and was largely a list of goals to make educational improvements for students, including Native Americans.

“We invited our tribal communities to comment at that time or wait until a later draft was released for their review. Many preferred to wait for the revised draft, which has yet to be issued,” Robinson said.

Despite the court ruling that many New Mexico students were not getting the public education they deserved, litigation related to the case has dragged on since 2018.

State officials will be deposed about their efforts to comply with the lawsuit in the coming months, according to plaintiff lawyer Preston Sanchez. The total cost of the lawsuit to taxpayers is expected to approach $8 million this year since it was filed in 2014.

Part of the litigation has been aimed at forcing the state to make a plan. Sanchez said he would prefer that Lujan Grisham’s administration do so voluntarily instead of demanding one through more court action.

Tribal leaders endorsed their own detailed plan in 2020, which advocates like Pecos see as a good starting point for negotiations.

Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. This story was produced under RFA’s America Statehouse News Initiative.

This story originally published Jan. 7, 2022, on Youth Today.


Rural New Mexico school buys Starlink internet for students

By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A school district in northwestern New Mexico is providing high-speed internet to students’ families, most of whom are Indigenous, in a $1.2 million deal that leapfrogs piecemeal efforts by state and tribal officials.

Cuba Independent Schools superintendent Karen Sanchez-Griego said staff began installing Starlink’s $500 receivers at students’ homes in November and hope to connect all 450 families by the end of the school year.

Traditional fiber optic cables haven’t been installed around Cuba because of the area’s sparse population, lack of money, and crisscrossing red tape from tribal, federal, and state agencies that have to approve digging.

New Mexico education officials were ordered by a court in April to provide high-speed internet to students in Cuba and other areas but haven’t done so.

New Mexico Starlin internet: Adults and children stand at farm gate talking next to yellow school approaching on dirt road
Social worker Victoria Dominguez, background right, delivers supplies she collected at Cuba High School, to deliver along a rural school bus route outside Cuba, N.M., Oct. 19, 2020, where only low-speed, unreliable wi-fi internet access is available to students.(Cedar Attanasio/AP File)

Wi-Fi hotspots from the state didn’t work well in remote areas far from cellphone towers. Education officials are planning on purchasing Starlink units for around 1,000 families around the state but haven’t specified a timeline for doing it.

“Our kids can’t wait,” said Sanchez-Griego, adding that the investment is funded by federal relief money that will eventually run out paying for $100 monthly internet fees. “Our hope is that the state will come through.”

Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. This story was produced under RFA’s America Statehouse News Initiative.

This story originally published Jan. 7, 2022, on Youth Today.

New Mexico court reiterates need for sentencing reform in granting parole to juvenile lifer 

By Steve Jansen

ALBUQUERQUE — Michael Brown, one of dozens of juvenile lifers in New Mexico and the subject of a recent Youth Today profile, will be eligible for parole in February 2024 following a New Mexico district court decision. 

Brown, who was expected to spend the rest of his life behind bars, had been serving one of the state’s longest sentences for a crime committed as a child due to his involvement in the 1994 murders of his grandparents.

“It still seems very surreal. Every once in a while, it hits me that I’m actually going to see the parole board in a couple years,” said the 44-year-old Brown in a phone interview from the Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility in Clayton. “I always felt like I was going to die in here, and now to have [an opportunity for parole] is really sobering to me in all of the best ways.”

Brown, who has been incarcerated since he was 16 years old, had been sentenced to life plus 41 and a half years for two counts of first-degree murder as well as tampering with evidence and the unlawful taking of a motor vehicle. In November, judge Christopher Perez of the 13th Judicial District Court restructured the sentence to provide for earlier parole eligibility, ruling in a habeas corpus petition that Brown’s sentence is unconstitutional and violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Perez declined to reduce Brown’s sentence to less than life, which, under New Mexico law, is 30 years. Brown, who has served 27 years, won’t appeal the judge’s decision related to the life sentence.

“[Brown] is focused on what he can do for himself and for his family to prepare for this hearing,” said Denali Wilson, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico who is representing Brown. “In just over two years from now, he will have the chance to come home.”

In the habeas ruling declining to reduce Brown’s sentence, the court placed the onus on state lawmakers to craft statutory updates to sentencing practices for juvenile offenders convicted of serious crimes such as murder.

“Reviewing juvenile sentencing procedures for consistency with our society’s evolving standards of decency is a laudable endeavor. However, as in this case, such matters of public policy are best addressed by the Legislature,” the court wrote, citing the August 2, 2021 New Mexico Supreme Court ruling in State of New Mexico v. Nicholas Ortiz that upheld the state’s sentencing procedure that subjects serious youthful offenders to adult sentences.

According to Wilson, judgments in State v. Ira and Ira v. Janecka, as well as United States Supreme Court cases Montgomery v. Louisiana and Jones v. Mississippi, have also underscored the need for state legislative action to address sentencing youth to de facto life sentences.

“Almost 20 years ago now, retired Justice Richard Bosson asked the Legislature to look at the policy issues behind extreme adult sentences imposed on children,” Wilson said. “Since then, the U.S. Supreme Court has chimed in, on several occasions now, and our own New Mexico Supreme Court, too, each time emphasizing the power of the Legislature to resolve this issue.”

Twenty-five states and the District of Columbia have passed a version of “second chance” legislation introducing parole eligibility earlier for juvenile offenders. A similar proposal in New Mexico failed during the 2021 legislative session. 

Supporters of that proposal could get another chance next year: During a Nov. 10 Courts, Corrections, and Justice Committee hearing, state lawmakers, ahead of the 2022 New Mexico Legislature, endorsed juvenile sentencing reforms

According to the ACLU of New Mexico, the bill, which has been submitted to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for the upcoming session scheduled for Jan. 18-Feb. 17, would abolish juvenile life without parole and establish parole eligibility after 15 years for youth who were sentenced as adults. The legislation is co-sponsored by Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-Bernalillo), Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Bernalillo), and Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil (D-Bernalillo).

“You can’t just throw a child away because they made a mistake,” said Brown. “There are so many guys in here, a good portion that were juveniles who were sentenced as adults, that are worthy of that second chance.”

This story originally published Dec. 22, 2021, on Youth Today.

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