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New head of New Mexico child welfare department pledges to ‘listen and learn’ in face of challenges

By Maura Fox

When former New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil retired from the bench in June, she didn’t know what was next, but one thing was certain: She wanted to pivot from presiding over cases of vulnerable communities to actively advocating for them. 

In October, just four months later, she signed on as the secretary of the state’s Children, Youth, and Families Department (CYFD). 

“I knew that I was ready to jump back into public service,” Vigil says of her decision to lead the agency of 1,700 employees, which has suffered a rocky year. “Some things can’t wait.” 

Vigil replaced former cabinet secretary Brian Blalock, who stepped down from the position in August amid controversy, including overseeing the department’s use of the encrypted messaging app Signal and entering into a no-bid computer system contract (a move CYFD reversed in October). 

Two former employees filed a whistleblower complaint over the summer alleging they were retaliated against for raising concerns.

The department is also being sued for its handling of a case that returned four children to allegedly abusive parents.  

Earlier this year, CYFD was issued a set of recommendations from the state’s Legislative Finance Committee to improve how it reports child abuse data and address the department’s high staff turnover rate.

Transparency, collaboration and accountability

From the blue couch in her office, located in downtown Santa Fe, Vigil comes across as soft-spoken and sober in the face of her department’s many challenges. She said her leadership philosophy is rooted in three tenets: Transparency, collaboration and accountability. 

“My goal is to ensure that if a family has contact with CYFD, they are better off for it,” Vigil says.

New Mexico child welfare advocates and attorneys are hopeful that Vigil is up to the challenge. Colleagues and observers describe her as a thoughtful listener who has worked diligently on behalf of kids in the state. 

Ezra Spitzer, executive director of the New Mexico Child Advocacy Networks, believes that Vigil was a wise choice for the position given her experience and position of respect in the community. 

He adds, however, that she and the department will be most successful if they commit to community engagement.

“It’s a very tough job, and one person cannot change all the things that need to change,” Spitzer says. “She is going to need a team of very skilled and talented people around her and partnership from the community.” 

Like any cabinet secretary, Vigil says she will make sure her goals for the department align with those of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration.

State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a former social worker and the vice chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, questions how Vigil will navigate the often slow-turning wheels of bureaucracy.  

New Mexico child welfare: Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino
State Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino (Courtesy of New Mexico State Government)

“She’s seen the problems; she knows what she would like to get done,” says Ortiz y Pino, a Democrat representing Albuquerque. “How do you translate that into moving the bureaucratic machinery in a way that actually produces the outcomes you want?”

Vigil, who has spent much of her career working on children’s issues, says she knows this work takes “endurance and tenacity.” 

Born and raised in New Mexico, Vigil’s family moved to Santa Fe when she was in the third grade. She received an undergraduate degree in accounting from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces before attending the University of New Mexico School of Law in Albuquerque. 

Though Vigil says she has always been passionate about serving vulnerable communities, it wasn’t until she began working at a firm in Las Cruces in 1988 that she found her calling for children’s issues. Vigil was assigned to represent a mother who was seeking custody of her two sons after a spurned ex-husband accused her of mistreating the children.

“Here was a mother who was being pulled into a system as a result of an angry former spouse,” Vigil recalls. “That really changed the way I saw the child welfare system in New Mexico. I became very interested in trying to make it better for kids and people like her.”

After opening her own law practice in Santa Fe, she served on the New Mexico First Judicial District Court for 12 years and presided over the Children’s Court. While there, she played a key role in the creation of the juvenile justice boards in Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, and Los Alamos. The boards bring together local leaders to develop programs for youth at risk of entering the juvenile justice system. 

In 2012, Vigil was elected to the New Mexico Supreme Court, where she served for nine years. 

Despite her qualifications and experience in family law and child welfare, Vigil says that she is still learning how the department works from within, especially when it comes to its internal challenges.

Trust through communication

In May, two CYFD employees were fired in what they allege was an act of retaliation for raising concerns about the department. Later in July, at least half a dozen other former employees said that they were reprimanded or fired for voicing worries about the department’s computer system upgrade, according to the Santa Fe New Mexican.  

Vigil says she hopes to build trust through regular communication with staff.

“I have spent the last six weeks attending meetings and listening to people who know much more about the work of the department than I,” Vigil says. “As time goes on, I’ll become more knowledgeable about internal operations, but at least for the future, I will spend a lot of time listening and learning.”

Vigil has already begun working on some key issues. One priority, she says, is addressing the settlement reached in the case of Kevin S. v. Jacobsen, a lawsuit alleging that CYFD retraumatized youth in its care

Under the settlement, the state agreed to adopt several new practices to address children’s well-being in the system, but the implementation plan has been slow, says Bette Fleishman, an attorney with Pegasus Legal Services for Children, one of the firms monitoring its progress. 

“We know it’s going to take years, and the best people should be working on it and putting in the resources to make it happen,” Fleishman says, adding that she’s optimistic about their goals under Vigil, who has already met with the implementation teams. 

In order to fully carry out the implementation plan, Vigil says she hopes to build up a robust workforce at CYFD and is asking the legislature for an increase in the department’s base budget to fund positions in the Protective and Behavioral Health services divisions.  

“A priority for me is to ensure that we have adequate staffing across New Mexico for this work,” Vigil says. “I see huge challenges for the department, but it doesn’t take away from the unwavering commitment and dedication that I’ve seen in thousands of employees who do this work day in and day out.”

This story originally published Dec. 21, 2021, on Youth Today.

Slow internet limits opportunities for rural New Mexico youth

By Tamara Rosenberg / Photos by Paul Ratje

Students board the school bus after crossing the border from Palomas, Chihuahua state, Mexico to Columbus, N.M., where they attend school, on Aug. 3, 2021. About one in six local students lives in Mexico.

Students board the school bus after crossing the border from Palomas, Chihuahua state, Mexico, to Columbus, N.M., where they attend school, on Aug. 3, 2021. About one in six local students lives in Mexico.


Students and parents walk to the school bus. "These are American citizens with a Constitutional right to an education," said Ben Glickler, director of technology for Deming Public Schools.


A boy on his way to school in New Mexico from Palomas. “A lot of our families have been here for generations,” said Ariana Saludares, a Deming mother of two and co-founder of Colores United, a local aid organization involved in child welfare. “The borders moved. We didn’t.”


The further away from central Deming, the less likely kids are to have access to internet infrastructure. Cellular service in border communities is purposefully weak by international agreement.


Young students walk to their school bus. The Deming school district gave all students laptops and those without connectivity received hotspots, many of which were carried over the border into children’s homes or out into ranching communities.


12 year-old Sioney Amaya's school-issued laptop is pictured inside her home in Columbus, N.M.


A view of Columbus, N.M. The rural town has about 1,600 inhabitants and is closely connected to the neighboring town of Palomas, over the border in Mexico.


A paper with instructions on how to connect to the Wi-Fi network is posted on the window at the Columbus Village Library in Columbus, N.M. Many students and locals come here to use the strong internet because their cellular service is weak and household networks slow.


Librarian Maria Constantine poses for a portrait inside the Columbus Village Library. She set up a strong internet connection in the library which can reach the adjacent park, so kids and locals are able to stay connected.


The Columbus Village Library has the only publicly accessible, 24/7 high-speed internet connection within miles. “We get people parked in cars around the library at all hours, doing homework, paying bills, looking up addresses and downloading movies,” said librarian Maria Constantine.


An antenna near the border wall in Columbus, N.M., extends U.S. cellular service across the border to Palomas, Mexico.

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COLUMBUS, N.M. — Maria Constantine manages the Columbus Village Library, which has the only 24/7 open-access high-speed internet connection within miles of the small New Mexico border town of 1,600. 

“When I first got here, I used to shut off the Wi-Fi at night,” said Constantine, who started the job in 2018. “Then one night, I saw a kid with his mom in the car, doing homework. I’ve left it on for 24 hours since then.”

New Mexico consistently ranks toward the bottom among states for internet access, and nearly 25 percent of students lack access. Columbus, New Mexico, is located in Luna County, an area about as large as Delaware and Rhode Island combined that is home to about 25,000 people scattered between Columbus, the town of Deming and miles of rugged desert. 

The library, town hall and school are all connected to a single fiber-optic cable that was installed several years ago to serve the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol at the Columbus port of entry. The rest of the county relies on spotty cellular service, satellite and DSL, a technology introduced in the 1990s that uses telephone wires to connect users to the internet.

The lack of fast, reliable connection hinders residents’ ability to access education, employment, health care, information, benefits and services, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Children and youth under 25 have been particularly impacted, since most education has switched to a hybrid model, requiring attendance in video classrooms. 

Librarian Maria Constantine poses for a portrait outside the Columbus Village Library in Columbus, N.M., on Aug. 23, 2021. The library recently installed Wi-Fi boosters to extend service across the main street and into the park as a community service benefiting both kids and their parents.

“Not having a good connection or having internet service at all is a huge barrier for a student’s overall academic success,” said Crystal Gonzales, lead equity liaison for the Deming Public School System. “It’s a significant equity issue. Students are facing enough challenges and working hard to prevail — they need reliable and efficient connectivity and technology to work for them.”

But outdated infrastructure isn’t the only barrier to internet access, which is increasingly necessary for school, employment and accessing benefits. The cost of even slow service is out of reach for many, and one in six local students live in Palomas, Mexico, and commute over the border for school.

“These are American citizens with a Constitutional right to an education,” said Ben Glickler, director of technology for Deming Public Schools. 

Sioney Amaya, 12, shows her school-issued laptop inside her home in Columbus, N.M.,, on Aug. 3, 2021. She and her sister have struggled with slow internet speeds when completing online classes throughout the pandemic.

But delivering on that right isn’t simple. When the schools shut down in early 2020 for the pandemic, the district scrambled to identify students with limited or no connectivity, Glickler said. 

At that time, the federal government relaxed its definition of  “campus” to include off-site areas such as children’s homes, allowing schools to provide hotspots using federal e-rate funds. In Deming, all students were provided with laptops and those without connectivity received hotspots in an attempt to keep them up to speed with the rest of their classmates.

Many of those hotspots were carried over the border into children’s homes in Palomas or out into ranching communities. 

But the further away from central Deming, the less likely kids are to have access to internet infrastructure. Cellular service in border communities is purposefully weak by international agreement. Once across the border, U.S. cellular reach drops dramatically. Video schooling for kids outside of Deming has been plagued by either significant lag time or complete lack of connectivity.

“Sometimes when the internet didn’t work in my house, I had to go to the library to see my classes and do my homework,” said Delanie Amaya, 10, of Columbus, who visits the library regularly with her family. “When we go, there were the same kids there because they didn’t have internet at home.” 

An April 2021 ruling by the state of New Mexico mandates that all school districts must provide technology and high-speed internet access to their students, specifically targeting the historically underserved Hispanic and Native American populations. 

The FCC defines high-speed internet as anything above 25mbps (megabytes per second). 

The highest available speed in Columbus is 20 mbps at $75/month. With a staggering 44% poverty rate in the village and an average household income of less than $25,000 annually, internet is an unaffordable luxury for many.

Delanie Amaya, 10, poses for a portrait outside her family’s home in Columbus, N.M., on Aug. 3, 2021. She says the family’s internet service, which is received through the satellite dish on her roof, can make completing her online classes challenging because of the outages and slow speeds.

The new federal infrastructure bill provides funding to rural areas lacking broadband. But the criteria are often too restrictive for a region that less than 100 years ago had free movement between countries. 

“A lot of our families have been here for generations,” said Ariana Saludares, a Deming mother of two and co-founder of Colores United, a local aid organization involved in child welfare. “The borders moved. We didn’t.”

Federal funding cannot be used outside of the United States, even if in direct support of U.S. citizens. This creates a catch-22 for the school district, which is required to provide high-speed access to its students, many of whom live in Mexico.

Smaller vendors have erected their own cell towers along the U.S. side of the border that re-broadcast and resell the reach of American cellular networks into Mexico. These services are still relatively expensive and inconsistent.

During the pandemic, Deming Public Schools turned into giant open access hotspots for those that could get there. Now, with most learning back in person, kids still do the majority of their work on school-issued laptops, which means even the school’s fiber-optic connection isn’t enough. 

“We’ve hit our maximum bandwidth every day since we got back to school in April,” said Glickler.

School officials know their challenges are unique, and are exploring how to stretch federal funding and creatively apply less restrictive state funding. For example, school leaders are exploring whether federal money can be used to subsidize home internet service, or if they can build their own cell towers.

The district is also working with the library and county to increase internet accessibility. The library recently installed Wi-Fi boosters to extend service across the main street and into the park as a community service benefiting both kids and their parents. 

“We get people parked in cars around the library at all hours, doing homework, paying bills, looking up addresses and downloading movies,” said Constantine. “But it’s not easy to do all that sitting in a car, often on a phone.”

This story originally published Nov. 30, 2021, on Youth Today.

Latest New Mexico K-12 curriculum controversy, only on Zoom

By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico officials have been inundated with critical letters on proposed K-12 social studies standards over the inclusion of racial identity and social justice themes in a majority Latino state where Indigenous tribes have persevered through war, famine, internment camps and boarding schools aimed at stamping out their cultures.

If approved, the standards would require students starting in kindergarten to “identify some of their group identities” and “take group or individual action to help address local, regional, and/or global problems.”

By high school, students would examine “factors which resulted in unequal power relations among identity groups.”

Critics, including some Hispanics, say the standards promote victimhood, while supporters have praised the standards as “more just and anti-racist.”

The proposed New Mexico standards represent a new frontier in the clash over “critical race theory” — an academic concept increasingly used by conservative activists as a catchall term for the study of systemic racism, historical oppression or progressive social activism.

Political organizing centered around the term has been credited for swaying some voters to select a Republican governor, with mixed results other local elections across the country on Nov. 1.

New Mexico teachers already face a challenge explaining the region’s history and its evolving social structures. The state is a patchwork of 23 federally recognized Native American nations, tribes and pueblos.

Half of the state is Latino and about 10% of New Mexico’s students are Native American — with many tracing their heritage to pre-Columbian and 16th century Spanish conquistadors.

Tensions over that history erupted last year when a group of mostly white activists destroyed a historical marker memorializing Union soldiers who fought against Confederate and Indigenous armies. The stone obelisk sat on the reference point for land appropriated by Spanish settlers.

The New Mexico Public Education Department’s proposed standards are aimed at making civics, history, and geography more inclusive of the state’s diverse population so that students feel at home in the curriculum and are prepared for a minority-majority society. They add requirements for students to learn more details about Indigenous life, including more of the distinct Native cultures.

NM k-12 Curriculum: Crowd of adults sit in chairs looking toward front where man sits at table
William Pockman, seated at table, a professor and chairman of the biology department at the University of New Mexico, speaks at a public hearing in Santa Fe, N.M., Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, when the New Mexico Education Department initially asked for public comment on the first revamp of its social studies curriculum in 30 years. Over 500 comments were submitted, mostly critical. Officials recently canceled a Nov. 12 in-person public forum comment session citing the pandemic, to the chagrin of Conservative activists and GOP leaders. (Morgan Lee/AP)

Some studies have found that ethnic studies programs at the high school level can increase school attendance and graduation rates. And a New Mexico lawsuit seeks to pressure the state education department to embrace teaching that students find relevant to their cultures and languages.

The education department also wants to update the history portion of the social studies curriculum, which hasn’t been changed in three decades. Proposed learning sections include the Sept. 11 attacks and the LGBT rights movement.

But many educators are concerned about the size and scope of the proposed updates.

They have said that updated school science standards in 2017 were based on an existing curriculum used in other states for years. Teachers and administrators also say they have been swamped with work returning to school amid the pandemic.

“It feels like it’s being rushed and I don’t know why,” said Kevin Summers, superintendent of the Aztec Municipal School District in northwestern New Mexico. “Can we back off? Can we just get six more months?”

State Republican officials have tried to tap into the national controversy over education. But a Republic effort last spring to to recruit school board members on a critical race platform didn’t take off.

State education officials originally planned a Nov. 12 in-person public forum for supporters and opponents to share their opinions about the proposed standards. But the venue was changed to Zoom.

That will deprive Republicans of a physical space to rally around. State GOP chairman Steve Pearce called canceling the in-person forum a “rash, political decision to kill the public comment period is as dangerous as the proposal itself.”

The education department in response said that all the public comment on proposed rule changes has been virtual since the pandemic began and extended the length of the Zoom session by several hours.

“We are in a pandemic, so crowding in an indoor setting could be dangerous,” said education department spokeswoman Judy Robinson.

Proposed 2022 curriculum change controversy

The proposed changes represent the biggest curriculum controversy the education department has faced since its effort to update new science standards in 2017, during Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’ administration.

What New Mexico children learn in school is often determined less by legislation and more by the administrative rulemaking process by education officials, which includes public comments, responses and possible incorporation of feedback.

It’s one of the strongest powers the agency has, according to the education secretary who spearheaded the 2017 science standards.

Christopher Ruszkowski, education secretary under Martinez, said public education changes don’t usually happen under legislation, but are put in place by the education department and “90% of policymaking is done at the rule level.”

Public comment led to major changes in the science standards the agency proposed, he said, which had watered down scientific facts to placate anti-science constituents after early feedback sessions.

The education department removed the real age of the Earth and human evolution, which contradict some interpretations of the Bible, and struck explicit references to climate change unpopular in southeastern New Mexico’s oil-producing regions.

Ruszkowski said he authorized the changes to a draft proposal even though he did not support them personally.

That generated a backlash from scientists in letters, newspapers ads, and a packed hall for the public comment forum.

In the end, the agency implemented the original science standards in full.

During the process of developing the science standards before they were drafted, sessions were held with members of the public to gather input. But the education department did not do that this time, instead inviting 64 people — mostly teachers and administrators — to draft the standards in private over the summer.

The draft was released on Sept. 28 and the education department wants students to learn using the new curriculum next school year.

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 Nov. 12, 2021, on Youth Today.

Education funding on ballots in New Mexico cities’ elections

By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Local governments across New Mexico are seeking to renew property taxes to pay for school buildings, computers and air ventilation systems even as school districts are slated to receive $900 million in federal pandemic aid.

Ventilation upgrades are on virtually all lists after state authorities mandated upgraded systems better able to pull tiny virus particles out of the air. They often require new machinery.

Due to recent changes in state law, all money raised by local school funding ballot initiatives will go to funding to local schools.

Until this year, around 75% of operational funds in mill levies were deducted from state funds, meaning only 25% of local property taxes for schools actually went directly to that district.

The legislation benefits districts such as Santa Fe where there’s a strong local tax base, as well as districts serving Gallup, in northwestern New Mexico, where federal funds offset the nontaxable federal and tribal land surrounding it.

A few school districts with both low property values and no federal land will likely lose out in the long term under the new formula.

But the losses won’t be felt any time soon because of federal pandemic relief, which allocates funding based on the number of low-income students in the district. Wagon Mound, in northeastern New Mexico, got $15,000 for each student and doesn’t have a mill levy on the ballot compared to just over $100 in Los Alamos, where school funding is on the ballot.

In most cities, the levies will renew property taxes, but not increase them. If the ballot measures are voted down, property taxes will decrease.

School districts received around $900 million in additional federal funding this year aimed at offsetting the costs of reshaping education infrastructure in response to the virus.

Some of the funds were used to replace aging air ventilation systems. Many districts offered a laptop to each student for the first time, paid bonuses to staff working amid the risk of COVID-19, as well as purchased hand sanitizer, signage and masks.

Balloting is underway at early voting centers, county clerks’ offices and by absentee ballots that can be mailed or dropped off by hand. Election Day is Nov. 2.

Albuquerque is asking voters for $630 million, with classroom technology upgrades accounting for the largest proposed spending category of around $110 million. Another $15 million would pay for air ventilation improvements. That’s after $30 million budgeted from federal pandemic aid, district spokeswoman Monica Armenta said.

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 Oct. 22, 2021, on Youth Today.

New Mexico awards $157M in grants to child care providers

By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s child care department is sending millions to child care centers in an effort to keep them in business, awarding grants to pay for everything from salaries to rent.

The state Early Childhood Education and Care Department announced Wednesday $157 million in awards to 1,004 child care providers, from large centers to those who offer child care out of their homes.

“New Mexico needs a strong and stable child care industry, not only to support the growth and development of our children but also to ensure that parents aren’t forced to drop out of the workforce because they can’t access child care,” said Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Many child care centers closed during the pandemic or reduced the number of children they served due to spacing requirements. Some are still closed or have yet to return to full capacity.

Checks start going out this month and could be a lifeline for child care centers struggling with inflation, rising rents, and increasingly competitive wages in the labor market. The state will audit 10% of the grantees, chosen randomly, to ensure the grant money is spent on eligible costs.

A set of grants totaling $278,000 will allow the opening of a child care center in Grants County in southwestern New Mexico where some 35 families are on a waiting list.

“Probably 50% of them are teachers,” said Misty Pugmire, head of El Grito Inc., which is running the center for children aged 6 weeks to 3 years old. “We’ve got several parents down there that want to go to work, or can’t afford to go to work.”

She says the grant is one of 13 the organization relies on for child care centers around the county. It will pay for around a third of her labor costs for the first year it is open. Pugmire said that since the reduction in unemployment benefits, it’s been easier to find workers even without raising wages.

But some staff hired in September are still not on the job because of the slow pace of law enforcement background checks.

“There are still some of those that I have not received the checks back, because they’re backlogged,” Pugmire said.

In July, the department increased child care subsidy eligibility to about $93,000 for a family of four.

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 Oct. 21, 2021, on Youth Today.

Data on child abuse in New Mexico called into question

By Associated Press
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Data on child abuse in New Mexico has been called into question after lawmakers raised concerns that the former director of the state’s child welfare agency provided inaccurate statistics.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports legislative committee staff has since found child abuse deaths in the state have more than doubled in fiscal year 2020 from the previous year and the state has the second-highest rate of repeated child maltreatment in the nation.

In a memo last week, Legislative Finance Committee Director David Abbey said the state Children, Youth and Families Department also has struggled with staff vacancies and high turnover in key leadership positions and that agency oversight needs improvement.

The legislative review came after committee members raised concerns that the agency’s former Cabinet secretary, Brian Blalock, provided inaccurate statistics at a July hearing.

According to Abbey’s memo, Blalock reported child maltreatment rates were below national averages, but the committee’s staff found rates that soared to nearly twice the U.S. rates between 2015 and 2019, when the state ranked 6th highest in the nation.

National data for fiscal years 2020 and 2021, when the state’s rates dipped during the coronavirus pandemic, are not yet available. But the memo cited a likely decline in national numbers as well due to a lack of reporting as children remained isolated in their homes.

Blalock resigned in August amid a controversy centered on his department’s use of an encrypted messaging app called Signal.

Blalock, who will be replaced by former state Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil, has said his reason for leaving was to support his wife as she pursues a new job opportunity.

Agency spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst said in a statement that the department under new leadership will approach its work with transparency and accountability.

This story originally published Oct. 14, 2021, on Youth Today.

New Mexico pledges support for tribal adoptions in state law

By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — In her first prepared speech Tuesday the new leader of New Mexico’s child protection department pledges to restore the agency’s credibility following a series of scandals under her predecessor.

New Mexico Children Youth and Family Department Secretary Barbara J. Vigil also promised to enshrine federal law prioritizing tribal members in adoptions of Native American children into the practices of her department and state law.

In an online speech to some 300 Native American child welfare advocates, the former New Mexico Supreme Court justice said she would increase transparency and accountability at the agency, which handles child abuse and neglect cases, as well as foster care and adoptions.

“We must restore the credibility of CYFD,” Vigil told the audience of Native American leaders and child welfare caseworkers.

Vigil replaced former secretary Brian Blalock in August.

Blalock oversaw the department’s switch to an encrypted app that drew controversy over institutionalized use of a feature to erase messages, including those that may have been subject to record retention laws. State legislators recently accused him of misleading them earlier this year with data that downplayed the severity of child mistreatment.

Under Blalock, the department resisted calls for more independent oversight, pointing to an advisory council and an advocacy office.

“I will support the creation of an ombudsperson office,” Vigil said, adding that legislation is under discussion.

Under Blalock, the department suggested that an independent investigator wasn’t necessary, because of an existing advisory committee.

Vigil also said she would “continue to support the creation of the Office of Children’s Rights,” a section of the department established under Blalock to advocate for vulnerable children.

He recruited a director for the office and fired her a few months later, and she sued and claimed whistleblower status. The position is currently vacant.

Vigil said she supports state lawmakers’ attempts to enshrine the federal Indian Child Welfare Act into state law. The act passed in 1978 gives preference to Native American families in state foster care and adoption proceedings involving Native children.

Supporters and opponents of the law have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review it after a lower court issued a sharply divided ruling that invalidated some of the law’s placement preferences.

Tribes and the U.S. Department of the Interior say the law protects Native American families and cultures. Opponents, including a white couple that adopted a Native child, contend the law is racist.

Six states have copied federal requirements into their own laws, such as a duty to notify federally recognized tribes of involuntary custody proceedings. New Mexico is exploring taking the federal rules even further, for example, by making it easier for a tribal nation to facilitate an adoption under its own laws, as is the law in California.

“We do have a commitment from the governor to take a look at it,” said bill sponsor Rep. Georgene Louis, an Albuquerque Democrat, who said she sent a draft bill to Native American leaders last week. “All if not most tribes are on board.”

Every other year, the February Legislative session is shorter and gives the governor more discretion to determine which legislation gets a vote.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has not ruled or endorsed either of the proposed bills that could affect the child protection agency.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Sackett said tribal adoption laws are being considered “in conversation with stakeholder groups” including tribes.

“Although we believe it will be important to find ways to strengthen transparency and accountability at CYFD, and we have had conversations with legislative leaders about that, we are not yet committed to one path,” Sackett said, adding that the child advocacy position could be housed in another agency.

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 Oct. 13, 2021, on Youth Today.

Behind bars since age 16, juvenile lifer watches New Mexico struggle over sentencing reform

By Steve Jansen / Photos by Gabriela Campos
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Michael B. Brown sits at a table inside of a visitors room at the Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility in Clayton. Tattoos, several of which he designed himself, cover the arms and neck of the six-foot-tall, blue-eyed, 44-year-old man who has lived behind bars for most of his life — since he was 16. 

“I didn’t think I was going to live to see 25 years old,” says Michael. “I didn’t think I was going to survive this … but I’ve managed to maneuver my way through and after 27 years, here I am.”

Michael was tried as an adult and convicted of murder in the brutal deaths of Ed and Marie Brown, his grandparents, with whom he was living at the time. His grandfather was stabbed 58 times and his grandmother six.

A day after the slayings, Michael and two friends were arrested. Michael, who says he was hiding in his room when his grandparents were killed and did not take part in their murders, was 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.

Michael is one of dozens of people in New Mexico who received what juvenile justice reformists call “de-facto life sentences” — sentences so long they will likely never be released — for crimes committed as minors. He is a vocal supporter of youth sentencing reforms that died in the state legislature earlier this year, part of a national movement to rehabilitate juvenile offenders and make them eligible for parole earlier.  

Michael says he was a “drunk and stupid kid” at the time of his grandparents’ murders and regrets not taking action to stop them. He attributes his poor choices to immaturity and says he has since found meaning in life as a mentor to fellow inmates and at-risk youth.

In the years since Michael was sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders based on neuroscientific evidence that adolescent brains are undeveloped compared to those of adults. But the court has not clarified how lower courts should view consecutive terms-of-year sentences.

The Supreme Court’s ruling and subsequent decisions have basically stated that “the federal courts are sick of dealing with this, and it’s up to the states to deal with this issue in enacting their own sentencing laws,” says Denali Wilson, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico and founding member of the New Mexico Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth

Some states have taken it upon themselves to pass legislation mandating earlier parole eligibility for juvenile offenders, sometimes called “second chance” legislation. Advocates of these laws cite adolescent neuroscience and studies showing low recidivism rates among those sentenced as juveniles. 

In 2018, the New Mexico Supreme Court upheld the 91-and-a-half year sentence of a man convicted for crimes committed when he was 14 and 15 years old, but encouraged state lawmakers to modernize the state’s juvenile sentencing practices

That ruling sparked a grassroots movement that eventually led to the introduction of New Mexico’s own ill-fated second chance bill.

“There are guys who had their entire lives hanging on this bill, and they had that yanked out from underneath them,” says Michael. “I don’t think anybody out there understands how that feels to have a light at the end of the tunnel and then have somebody slam the door.”

Many prosecutors and victims’ advocates oppose the proposed changes to New Mexico’s sentencing laws. They say forcing victims to testify at parole hearings earlier and more often would be traumatizing. 

Some also question the scientific claims about adolescent brain development that form the basis of the youth sentencing reform movement, despite the Supreme Court’s acceptance of this evidence. 

Barbara Romo, chief deputy district attorney for the 13th Judicial District, which includes Cibola, Sandoval and Valencia counties, is among those unpersuaded by the argument that adolescent brain chemistry should be a mitigating factor. 

“If that was the cause, then every juvenile that’s an adolescent whose brain hasn’t been developed would be committing these atrocious crimes,” says Romo, who has spent a bulk of her career in military service and the legal field. “There’s something else going on in those individuals.”

How a cop’s son ended up in jail for the murder of his grandparents

Michael grew up in a law enforcement family and started rebelling by drinking heavily and running the streets at age 14, a few years after his mom and dad separated. 

His father, a former officer with the Albuquerque Police Department and the Rio Rancho Department of Public Safety, worked long hours and was never around much, according to Michael and his younger sister, Shannon Fleeson.

“We spent a majority of the time with my grandparents,” says Shannon. “I was very, very close to them. I spent hours every night coloring with my grandpa and doing word searches with my grandma.”

New mexico jail: Michael Brown headshot of slicked-back brown-haired man wearing white mask and dark top, with eyes closed and head leaning into heavily black tatooed left arm with hand covering left eye
Michael Brown wipes a tear away while talking about the 1994 murder of his grandparents in the visitation room at the Northeastern Correctional Facility in Clayton, N.M. on September 20, 2021. (Gabriela Campos)

On February 4, 1994, when Shannon was six and Michael was 16, she found their paternal grandparents stabbed to death in their home in the Albuquerque suburb of Rio Rancho, according to court documents. 

Michael says that on the night of the murders, his grandmother had kicked him and his two friends out of the house for drinking. They eventually returned to the house and drank more.

Michael maintains that he did not lay hands on his grandparents. He says his two friends left his room, and then “there was screaming and yelling.” 

Michael says he hid in his room with a pillow over his head while his grandparents were killed. He says that at the time he was heavily intoxicated and scared. 

“I opened the door and there was blood all over the walls in the hallway,” Michael recalls. “At that moment I was instantly sober. Everything was so vivid and real.”

“I freaked out and closed the door — I just froze,” he continues, breaking down in tears. “That’s one of the moments that I look back on with the most regret. I did nothing when I should have done something. They were always there for me and I betrayed them in the worst way.”

In New Mexico, a youth convicted of first-degree murder can receive one of two sentences: juvenile life without parole (a sentence that replaced the death penalty in 2009), which means an inmate must remain behind bars until they die; or life imprisonment, where offenders are eligible for parole after 30 years. 

In Michael’s case, “he has to serve his whole life sentence, which is 30 years, then he would have to be paroled from that to start the 41 and a half years,” says Wilson, the ACLU attorney. “Literally nobody has any idea how long he will actually be in prison.” 

One of Michael’s co-defendants, Bernadette Setser, confessed to police that she and their other friend, Jeremy Rose, stabbed the older couple. At trial, Michael was portrayed as the mastermind behind his grandparents’ murders. Later, Rose recanted, saying “no one made” him do it and that prosecutors coerced his false testimony in exchange for a softer sentence, according to court documents. In May 2020, Michael filed for a reduction of his sentence. The courts have yet to make a decision. 

New Mexico jail: Michael Brown portrait with short light brown hair and beard smiles into camera sitting in turquoise plastic chair in prisoner visiting room wearing navy blue prison uniform with heavily black tatooed arms on lap and fingers interlaced.
Michael Brown sits in the visitation room at Northeastern Correctional Facility in Clayton, NM. Michael was 16 years old when he was sentenced as an adult to life in prison. He is 44 today, and has spent 27 years behind bars. Under current law, he will be 67 at the earliest opportunity for release.(Gabriela Campos)

The slaying tore the family apart. Michael’s father didn’t speak to him for years. He eventually forgave his son after learning more about studies on adolescent brains, as well as observing Michael’s own efforts to better himself.

“It took my dad a long time to be able to come around to having a relationship with Michael … He was obviously very angry because it was his parents,” says Michael’s sister, Shannon. “They ended up having a conversation about what happened and my dad was able to forgive Michael. He saw all of the changes that Michael was making and that he’d become a different person that had matured and gotten educated.”

Michael and Shannon’s father declined Youth Today’s requests for an interview through his children. 

Michael says it took him years to grasp the gravity of his situation. He had always assumed that he would never spend a day in jail due to his family’s connection to law enforcement.

“My dad and my sister always tell me that my grandparents would be proud of me now and who I’ve become. Sometimes it’s comforting … but part of me thinks, ‘Do I deserve that?’”  

Michael credits education, connection for turnaround

Michael says he tried to put on a tough guy persona during the first five years of his prison stint. At age 17, he said he was stabbed in the neck with a screwdriver by a gang member. 

“Prison back then was a very violent place. Everybody in here was two to three times my age and two to three times my size,” says Michael. “On top of that, I was a highly publicized figure in the murder. I was a little 16-year-old little white kid from a law enforcement family, and kids like that are a minority, so I was definitely behind the eight ball. It was scary.”

Michael eventually started taking classes offered to inmates. He earned his GED diploma and completed additional courses with the aim of one day becoming a social worker for vulnerable youth. He says he’s also tried to be a positive influence on other inmates, including teaching a safety workshop in the early days of the pandemic to try and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, which hit New Mexico’s correctional facilities hard.

Jonathan Gooden met Michael around 2006 when Gooden was transferred to the same prison to serve out the remainder of his eight-year sentence for criminal residential burglary. 

He describes Michael as someone who could bring together various factions within the prison, and even organized a series of softball games using a Gatorade bottle and a hacky sack.

“It was very unifying,” says Gooden, 41, who has since been released but remains close friends with Michael. “Mike definitely has that quality about him, regardless of petty prison politics, to get everybody to put that aside to just have fun.”

Michael, for his part, credits his wife, Jessica Brown, for helping him turn his life around. The two met through one of Michael’s former cellmates, who was dating Jessica’s best friend. 

“It was like a brush fire that took off,” says Michael. “She slipped into my life like a whirlwind and stirred everything up and turned everything upside down. Nothing was ever the same after that in all the best ways.”

For Jessica, the connection was unexpected. 

“I never in a million years thought that we would end up together-together,” she says. “It was just someone to talk to. Before I knew it, there was nothing that he didn’t know about me. He was my best friend and it just kind of went from there.”

New Mexico jail: Woman with long dark hair wearing dart top and glasses sits on couch tickling pre-teen blonde boy wearing red long-sleeved top with red and white sweatpants
Shannon Fleeson, the sister of Michael Brown, tickles her son, Liam, 12, at their home in Santa Fe late September. “He makes everyone feel comfortable,” said Liam speaking of his uncle Michael. (Gabriela Campos)

Michael has since become a father figure to his wife’s three daughters and a supportive uncle to his sister’s two sons. 

“My boys adore him and look up to him,” says Shannon, who says that her oldest son Liam, 12, wants to play drums in the school band because Michael is a drummer. Years ago, Michael, who’s also a guitarist and visual artist, and a few of his fellow inmates performed a pop-punk set at a family banquet at the prison under the band name Sack Lunch. 

“Whenever I can’t get through to (Liam), I put him on the phone with Michael and I can tell my son is listening to what he’s saying,” Shannon says. “When they hang up the phone, my son’s attitude and outlook have changed.”

Liam says his uncle talks to him about school and helps him get along with his brother.

“He makes everyone feel comfortable,” Liam says. “I love him and wish he was home.”

 A reform movement gains steam

There are approximately 75 people in New Mexico serving sentences of more than 15 years for crimes committed when they were minors, according to the New Mexico Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. Close to 40, including Michael, are serving sentences of 30 years or more.

Since Michael’s sentencing, calls to ban life without parole or lengthy sentences for juveniles, even those who commit serious crimes such as murder, have gained momentum. 

In a 2012 joint decision in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court prohibited mandatory life without parole for juvenile offenders, even in homicide cases. 

Writing for the majority, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that adolescence is marked by “transient rashness, proclivity for risk, and inability to assess consequences” and that mandatory life without parole violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments.

In the years that followed, a number of state supreme courts extended the decision to apply to consecutive terms-of-year sentences that they said effectively amounted to life without parole. 

Some state legislatures also took up the issue by passing second chance legislation mandating earlier parole eligibility for juvenile offenders. This year, Maryland banned juvenile life without parole, and Michigan and Wisconsin legislatures are discussing similar reforms.

The issue came to a head in New Mexico in 2018 when that state’s Supreme Court upheld the sentence of Joel Ira, who is serving a 91-and-a-half year prison term for the violent sexual abuse of a younger child when he was 14 and 15 years old. 

Although the court upheld Ira’s sentence, the judges invited the legislature to take up the issue, pointing out that a number of other states had already done so.

New Mexico jail: Denali Wilson headshot of curly-haired blonde woman wearing red t-shirt sitting at blue table in yard with tan adobe wall in front of orange blossoming shrubs
Denali Wilson, attorney at the ACLU of New Mexico and founding member of the New Mexico Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth sits in the courtyard of the ACLU in Albuquerque. (Gabriela Campos)

“The New Mexico Legislature is at liberty to enact legislation providing juveniles sentenced to lengthy terms-of-years sentences with a shorter period of time to become eligible for parole eligibility hearing,” the decision reads. “Although we consider Ira’s opportunity to obtain release when he is 62 years old constitutionally meaningful, albeit the outer limit, we do not intend to discourage the legislature from adopting a shorter time period as have many other jurisdictions.”

The following year, Wilson, who was still a law student at the University of New Mexico’s main campus in Albuquerque, helped found the Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth.

Since then, the group has grown to 100 members and allies, including some public defenders, and includes family members of people serving long sentences for crimes committed when they were teenagers. They went to work pushing for a second chance bill, and received a crash course on the legislative process. 

The fruits of their efforts was Senate Bill 247, co-sponsored by Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (D-Bernalillo) and Rep. Dayan Hochman-Vigil (D-Bernalillo). 

Originally, the bill would have made juvenile offenders eligible for parole after 10 years. That threshold was increased to 15 years in the face of vocal opposition.

SB 247 was the most grassroots legislative campaign that there has probably been in New Mexico,” says Wilson. “It was just us and me as a baby lawyer not knowing anything about lobbying and trying to show up because we couldn’t get a New Mexico organization to commit to this issue.”

SB 247 passed the state Senate with bipartisan support. But it was never brought up for a vote in the House and died with the end of the legislative session. 

“The formula shouldn’t be about retribution, but about rehabilitation,” says Sedillo Lopez, a former law professor and a member of the New Mexico State Senate since 2019. “If you have the possibility of rehabilitation and giving these children hope, I think that’s good public policy.”

Though many members of the New Mexico District Attorney’s Association opposed the second chance measure, Mary Carmack-Altwies, district attorney for the First Judicial District covering Santa Fe, Los Alamos, and Rio Arriba counties, backed the legislation.

She emphasized that the proposed legislation didn’t allow for automatic release, but rather gave those sentenced as youth an opportunity for review by a parole board.

“We simply do not know what a 15-year-old will be like by the time they are 30,” wrote Carmack-Altwies in a letter to the New Mexico House of Representatives. “SB 247 creates the opportunity for us to take this much-needed second look at who a young person has grown to become instead of just focusing on the wrongs that they did.”

As SB 247 made its way through the New Mexico Senate and into the House, supporters relied on neuroscientific evidence from local and national experts. 

One such expert was Tina Zottoli, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York and an assistant professor in the department of psychology at Montclair State University in New Jersey. 

New Mexico jail: Black ink on white paper drawing of couple, puzzle pieces, skulls and roses with the words, "Nobody's perfect, but you're perfect for me."
A pen and ink portrait drawing that Michael Brown made for his wife Jessica Brown featuring a portrait of the couple along with their favorite phrase, “Nobody’s perfect.” (Gabriela Campos)

Zottoli co-authored a 2020 study that found a recidivism rate of just 1 percent among 269 people who were sentenced to life as juveniles and subsequently released. The study concluded that many people “age out” of criminal behavior as they grow up. 

“As you reach your early 20s and into your mid 20s, there’s a gradual catching up of the prefrontal regulatory systems, and you see a calming down of that impulsivity, short-sighted, risk-seeking behavior,” says Zottoli.

Zottoli says that an individual’s brain development can be complicated for those who grow up in unstable, impoverished or challenging home environments.

“Our brain is developing patterns based upon the feedback we get in our environment,” Zottoli says. “Of course, it’s not just the brain. Psychosocial development is so important in addition to cognitive development.”

Michael thinks his age and brain chemistry played a role in his actions 27 years ago. 

“Thinking about it with a 44-year-old man’s brain is different than thinking of it with a 16-year-old brain that was trashed from a half a bottle of gin and a 12 pack and a half of beer in me,” he says. “I certainly would have done things differently now.”

‘What it is like to have a family member murdered’

Many victims and prosecutors came out against New Mexico’s proposed second chance bill. 

In the face of sympathetic portraits of reformed juvenile offenders, they offered their own emotionally-charged stories of tragedy, loss and terror. 

The National Organization of Victims of Juvenile Murderers circulated an online petition against SB 247 that focused on Nathaniel Jouett, who killed two people and injured four others during a mass shooting inside of the Clovis-Carver Public Library in Clovis, New Mexico in August 2017. The Chicago-area group publishes victims’ rights materials and examples of violent crimes committed by youth on the website teenkillers.org. 

The group opposes wholesale legislative changes “unless they protect public safety from psychopaths and violations of victims’ rights,” says President Jennifer Bishop-Jenkins, whose sister, brother-in-law, and the couple’s baby were killed by a minor. 

“Until someone has walked a mile in our shoes, no one can even come close to understanding what it is like to have a family member murdered,” she says. 

She emphasizes that the rights of victims should be considered, especially the traumatizing potential of parole hearings that may come earlier and more often under the proposed reforms. 

Some critics of the reform movement have questioned the conclusions drawn from adolescent brain studies, while some judges have pushed back on certain defense arguments rooted in neuroscience.

New Mexico Chief Justice Judith Nakamura, writing a separate opinion upholding the lengthy sentence of Joel Ira, concluded that a distinction must be drawn between a juvenile who commits a single, impulsive act and someone like Ira who carried out repeated, violent attacks over a period of two years. The opinion included graphic descriptions of Ira’s abuse of the child, underscoring the kind of trauma victims could be forced to relive in parole hearings.

Romo, a former lead attorney for the New Mexico Victims’ Rights Project, said the studies on immature brains support correlation, but not causation, when it comes to criminal behavior. 

New Mexico jail: Long, outdoor cement sidewalk completely enclosed with chain link fence topped by barbed wire that meets the peaked metal roof
The outdoor hallway leading from the administrative building to the visitation room at The Northeast New Mexico Detention Facility where Michael Brown is serving his sentence in Clayton, N.M. (Gabriela Campos)

“Without that link, you’re making a dangerous assumption that these now adults, who were juveniles at the time that their brain or whatever personality thing caused them to commit these crimes, have changed,” she says. “Who’s going to make that determination? The parole board? Based on what?”

Romo also thinks SB 247 went too far in decreasing the amount of time before a juvenile offender would have been eligible for parole. She advocates for mandatory parole eligibility after 30 years, which is the state’s mandatory minimum for first-degree homicide. 

Some players in the legal system have changed their minds as the national movement for sentencing reform gains momentum. 

Preston Shipp, a senior policy counsel at The Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth, was a prosecutor in Tennessee until 2009. He says back then, he never would’ve believed that youth convicted of violent crimes were worthy of a second chance. 

“I dehumanized those people,” says Shipp, who began to change his mind while teaching a law class at a college prison program. He says the case of Cyntoia Brown, a 16-year-old trafficking victim who received a life sentence for killing a man who had picked her up for sex, was especially eye-opening. 

With time, he says he realized “justice isn’t some kind of zero sum game.”

“I can want both sides to heal and to move forward to have a better future,” Shipp says. “I think that’s what justice requires of us. I didn’t used to think that — all I was doing was arguing that people needed to go away for decades at a time.” 

Bipartisan sentencing reforms a ‘casualty of political drama’

In the end, heated arguments at the tail end of New Mexico’s legislative session over unrelated issues devolved into name calling and character attacks, and many pieces of legislation, including the second chance bill, never made it to a final vote. 

“It was a casualty of political drama more than anything, not the substance of the bill or the important issue of age-appropriate sentencing for kids,” says Wilson. “New Mexico has some reckoning to do, and it needs to be a top priority for our state.”  

She said the Coalition for the Fair Sentencing of Youth recently resumed regular meetings in an effort to get the legislation introduced in the 2022 session.

In New Mexico, the legislature meets for 30 days in even-numbered years to focus on the state budget and for 60 days in odd-numbered years to consider sweeping policy changes. As such, there’s a chance that a second chance bill won’t be reintroduced until the 2023 legislative assembly.

Although New Mexico’s bill didn’t make it to the governor’s desk, Michael says he will continue working for positive change, despite the real chance that he’ll spend most of his life locked up. 

“It’s just warehousing and punishment,” he says of today’s prison system for young offenders. “You either take it upon yourself to fight to grow into a good man, or you absorb this culture. Some have given up and are basically waiting to die.”

Agency spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst said in a statement that the department under new leadership will approach its work with transparency and accountability.

This story originally published Oct. 7, 2021, on Youth Today.

Pandemic relief for foster youth expires, ending aid to thousands

By Brian Rinker

UPDATE: The Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act expired Sept. 30, 2021, without an extension. 

A pandemic relief bill providing aid to transitional age foster youth will expire today unless Congress makes an 11th-hour decision to extend it, but as time runs out that appears increasingly unlikely. 

The results of failing to act, advocates warn, will be an estimated 20,000 young adults kicked out of the foster care system and cut off from aid that they have relied on to weather the financial challenges caused by the pandemic. 

Youth Today's OST HUB logo gray & lime green on white

The Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act, legislation passed in December 2020, placed a temporary moratorium on aging out of the system, allowing foster youth up to age 27 to access a slew of financial aid, resources, case management, housing and other services, while bolstering existing aid to youth and their families. 

Though it can vary state to state, the federal rule is that foster youth age out of the system at 21, meaning they no longer get access to resources like transitional housing services, monthly financial aid and case management. 

The new law not only expanded eligibility, it added benefits and expedited access. 

“The moratorium really was a stabilizing force for a lot of young people who would have aged out during the pandemic and would have had a really challenging time with securing housing and just making ends meet,” said Jennifer Pokempner, policy director at Youth Law Center.

The pandemic has hit foster youth exiting the system especially hard, leading to an increase in unemployment, food insecurity and housing instability, according to advocates, who also point out that many of these young people don’t have a family to fall back on when finances go south. 

For Justin Hayden, a 21-year-old set to age out of Indiana’s foster care system this week if the moratorium isn’t extended, the pandemic relief gave him funds to continue his college education and pay $3,900 for repairs to his new used car, which he bought last year and turned out to be a “lemon.”  

“I bought the car in November and was not able to get it fully repaired until March, and I would not have been able to do that without the transportation fund in this bill,” he said. “I’m not sure where I would be or how much more I’d be struggling if I did not have access to this pandemic relief.” 

Although the bill was signed into law toward the end of last year, states needed time to build up systems to expand eligibility and distribute aid. In some places, funds didn’t begin flowing to eligible youth until this past summer. Now, just months later, the legislation is set to end. 

“It’s just like a gut punch,” said Tony Parsons, who spent time in the child welfare system and works as a foster youth advocate with Youth Villages.  “We worked so hard to get this legislation passed and now, just when states are hitting their stride and getting this relief out to foster youth, the government says, ‘Oh, sorry, you can’t do it anymore.’”

A coalition of advocates, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Youth Law Center, has called on Congress to pass new legislation — H.R.5167 —  that would extend the foster youth protections for another year. The bill has bipartisan support and was introduced by Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth Co-Chairs, Representatives Karen Bass (D-CA), Don Bacon (R-NE), Jim Langevin (D-RI), Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) and Markwayne Mullin (R-OK). 

“It makes me want to cry,” Parsons said.

The bills’ backers had hoped to add the foster care protections extension into the congressional deal being worked out to prevent the government from shutting down Friday, but those talks have stalled.

As lawmakers on Capitol Hill struggle to pass legislation, foster youth and advocates anxiously wait to see if the provision can squeak through before the aid expires. If that fails, supporters of the extension will try to pass it in the weeks to come, but advocates say any hiccup in aid could be detrimental to foster youth who are counting on it.

In the meantime, states can act immediately to raise the age foster youth have to exit the system. California, for example, has extended a moratorium on aging out of the system through December.   

Parsons, for his part, is haunted by the unknown number of eligible foster youth who didn’t get the chance to access the emergency pandemic resources. 

“It makes me want to cry,” Parsons said. “But it also makes me more determined than ever to keep trying.” 

This story originally published Sept. 30, 2021, on Youth Today.

New Mexico education policy director resigns over remarks

By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — An education policy expert has resigned her post at the New Mexico Legislature following a long-simmering controversy over remarks she made about Native American students in 2019.

Legislative Education Study Committee director Rachel Gudgel announced her resignation last week, ending her tenure as a top nonpartisan adviser to lawmakers focused on education policy, where she earned around $130,000 per year.

“I have worked for the Legislature since 2005 and I love my job. However, the harassment and difficult work environment over the past three months has created an atmosphere that is just too challenging for me to continue to work in and be effective,” she said in a statement.

The decision followed a year of disciplinary actions that included a temporary suspension, an apology and a $100,000 professional coach. In her apology to Native American leaders, she described her remarks as “insensitive.” Native American advocacy groups and lawmakers later called for her resignation.

Rep. Derrick Lente, of Sandia Pueblo, said that he gave Gudgel the benefit of the doubt, but found the comments were worse than he initially thought.

“I wanted her resignation, or I wanted her terminated. So I think for me, this shouldn’t have taken so long,” said Lente, who had voted for the education committee to fire her, believing she possessed an implicit bias that made it impossible to serve Native American students.

Around 10% of New Mexico school children are Indigenous, and the state has around two dozen Native American tribes with their own unique languages and cultures. They are plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit driving education policy in the legislature, in which a state court ruled that the state offers substandard education to Native American and other vulnerable children.

Education committee members accepted the resignation and appointed deputy director Vanessa Hawker to lead the research efforts through the next legislative session, which will begin in January.

The education committee’s chairman, who had voted in support of her staying on, said the members are ready to move on.

“We can now focus on our most pressing objective, which is to achieve the highest possible positive learning outcomes for every student in New Mexico. This is a goal every committee member is committed to, and I am confident that we remain united in working to achieve it,” said Sen. Bill Soules of Doña Ana County.

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 Sept. 8, 2021, on Youth Today.

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