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.

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