By Steve JansenALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Child welfare professionals in New Mexico are applauding passage of a bill they say will improve legal representation for youth and families impacted by foster care.
Advocates say that the creation of an independent Office of Family Representation and Advocacy will help families connect to higher quality — and better paid — legal aid. The bill, which passed during the recent legislative session, now heads to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is expected to sign it into law.
“One of the biggest things we believe the office will be able to accomplish, because it has budgetary independence from the judiciary, is that they will be able to adequately compensate attorneys,” said New Mexico Sixth Judicial District Court Judge Jennifer DeLaney, who chairs the Children’s Court Improvement Commission.
“We know that when attorneys are not adequately compensated, it’s difficult to have a reasonable caseload and to do the best job that they can,” she added.
In addition to higher compensation, Children’s Court attorneys will receive training as well as support staff, said Arika Sanchez, director of policy and advocacy at Albuquerque non-profit NMCAN.
“This leads to fewer placements and school changes, less time in foster care, higher rates of families successfully completing their reunification plans, and ultimately, the best outcomes for children and youth,” she said.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Linda Lopez (D-Bernalillo) and Rep. Gail Chasey (D-Bernalillo), also creates a 13-member family representation and advocacy oversight commission that “will work with the director to set the policy and ensure best practices,” said DeLaney.
The office is expected to receive a $6.2 million appropriation from the general state budget, according to Sanchez.
“The structure will be similar to the public defender’s office in that there will be employed attorneys with the office as well as contractors throughout the state,” said DeLaney.
This story originally published Feb. 24, 2022, on Youth Today.