SANTA FE — Lawmakers on Monday took a look at what it was like for a young person to navigate New Mexico’s child welfare system without a foster family, shuffling from one residential treatment center to another before reaching adulthood.
Bette Fleishman, an attorney and executive director of Pegasus Legal Services for Children, led lawmakers through the journey of her client Kevin S., who spent 6 1/2 years in state custody — much of it through multiple out-of-state treatment facilities.
He was the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed in 2018 that resulted in a landmark settlement that committed New Mexico to a set of standards designed to help abused and neglected children.
Kevin S. “More or less grew up in group facilities. … Every time he moved, he lost all of those relationships,” Fleishman told lawmakers, underscoring his need for a consistent caregiver.
At age 12, she said, he sneaked out of a CYFD office overnight to look for his mother. As a teenager, she said, he needed braces but couldn’t get them. Conditions at an out-of-state facility were so bad, Fleishman said, that regulators shut it down.
No easy answers emerged on Monday as lawmakers pushed for ways to speed up reform of the child welfare system. But Fleishman used Kevin S.’s example to demonstrate the urgency of helping children find suitable foster care and services close to home.
Barbara Vigil, secretary for the Department of Children, Youth and Families, said her agency is committed to fulfilling its commitments from the Kevin S. settlement and making improvements as soon as possible.
Lawmakers, she said, can expect a significant budget request as the department pushes to increase salaries for its employees, hire more employees and coordinate with other state agencies to build a robust network of behavioral health services in New Mexico.
But she also said that CYFD is already making progress.
The number of children in out-of-state foster care has fallen from 68 at one point in 2019 to 17 this month, according to the CYFD.
“We continue to build the foundation for lasting change,” Vigil told lawmakers. But “there is a lot to do, we recognize that.”
The settlement agreement stipulated that no child under the age of 18 would be placed with an out-of-state provider until December 2020, except in exceptional circumstances necessary to protect the child’s safety, a time limit that the state under a Latest report issued by independent observers.
The legal team representing the plaintiffs in the settlement said the state has made progress, but not enough. They conceded that it’s not necessarily due to a lack of effort.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys encouraged lawmakers to provide CYFD with the funding it needs to fulfill its obligation, but also to hold the agency accountable for making changes “on the ground” that will significantly transform the lives of children in the system .
“This is urgent,” Fleishman said. “This is really, really urgent and it’s going to take all of us to move forward.”
The presentation came as the New Mexico legislature prepared to open a 60-day session on Jan. 17.
The children, youth and families department has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years as the state has been rocked by shocking cases of child abuse, some deaths and questions about whether they could have been prevented.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed Vigil, a former state Supreme Court Justice, to head the agency just over a year ago.
Vigil is committed to making CYFD more transparent and effective.
At Monday’s hearing, members of the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee spent more than three hours speaking with CYFD officials and representatives for the plaintiffs in the Kevin S. case, who discussed the status of their settlement.
Lawmakers encouraged both sides to work together and make clear demands on how lawmakers can help.
“We want to provide you with the resources you need to make this happen,” said Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque.
Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat who was elected House Majority Leader in the upcoming session, said the scope of the problem goes beyond children in state custody. Her parents, she said, also need services to help them manage their own trauma and break the cycle of abuse.
“It breaks my heart,” Chasey said.
As for Kevin S, Fleishman said he’s now 18 and has aged out of the system, but lives in a good home and receives developmental disability benefits. She thanked state officials for their help this year.
“All things considered, he’s actually a wonderful young man,” Fleishman said.
His mother died before they could be reunited.