Governor Martinez Announces Numerous Proposals to Improve Well-Being of New Mexico’s Children
ALBUQUERQUE -- Today Governor Susana Martinez announced numerous directives and initiatives aimed at improving the investigation of child abuse incidents and the general well-being of New Mexico’s children. These proposals are designed to improve communication between child welfare caseworkers and law enforcement officers, change and enhance the way in which caseworkers interact with and provide interventions to families with multiple child maltreatment investigations, and recruit and retain more CYFD caseworkers.
“Our goal with these initiatives is to improve our child welfare efforts so that we can better keep New Mexico children safe and promote healthy, loving homes and families,” said Governor Martinez.
Improve Communication, Follow-Through, and Information-Sharing between Law Enforcement and CYFD
In order to provide for more regular interaction and information-sharing between the police officers and caseworkers who each investigate the same child abuse cases, Governor Martinez will be issuing an executive order later this week directing CYFD to permanently transfer a team of investigators to the Family Advocacy Center (FAC) in Albuquerque. In addition, the Governor will direct CYFD to work with local partners in other New Mexico communities to identify areas where it would be feasible and helpful to establish additional child advocacy centers. For example, Valencia County is one of the highest-risk and highest-need areas of the state for child welfare services; the Governor’s executive order will direct state agencies to establish and staff a child advocacy center in Los Lunas, where a state building has been identified as a suitable location and local partners exist to help provide comprehensive child welfare services.
Child advocacy centers, like the FAC, house a variety of non-profit and public partners all dedicated to supporting children who have been victims of abuse; they can include law enforcement officers, child forensic interviewers, sexual assault nurse examiners, various social service organizations, and child abuse caseworkers.
“It takes a team approach to keep our children safe, and when police officers and CYFD caseworkers are able to work under the same roof, the benefits of increased communication and information-sharing on their child abuse cases cannot be understated,” said Governor Martinez.
In addition, Governor Martinez will require CYFD caseworkers to seek and review police reports and other law enforcement materials related to the cases they work before rendering a final investigative decision. Her order will direct all law enforcement entities under the State’s control to comply in a timely fashion with any CYFD request for this information.
“It’s important for our law enforcement officers and CYFD caseworkers to be on the same page and work collaboratively when making very difficult decisions about the custody of a child,” said Department of Public Safety (DPS) Secretary Greg Fouratt. “Too often, police officers and CYFD caseworkers investigate the same case separately, with little contact and communication with on e another after the initial incident has occurred. I’m hopeful that local law enforcement agencies throughout the State will also agree to provide their reports and other materials from their child abuse investigations to CYFD caseworkers.”
Take a More Proactive, Coherent Approach to Working with Families who have Faced Multiple CYFD Investigations
In the coming days, Governor Martinez will issue an executive order directing CYFD to implement a policy change requiring that any family who has been investigated twice by CYFD (whether the investigations resulted in substantiations or not) will have any subsequent CYFD investigation reviewed by a high-level supervisory team. This team will include the relevant county office manager, supervisor, caseworker, and children’s court attorney.
“This is a critical, necessary change that will ensure greater scrutiny of the activities in homes where there appears to be a pattern of concerning conduct,” said CYFD Secretary Yolanda Deines. “We spoke with several caseworkers who felt as though this new policy would bring greater consistency and coherence to the investigative decisions relating to cases involving families that interact with CYFD regularly.”
Governor Martinez will also announce the creation of a pilot program in Bernalillo County, establishing a new class of child welfare caseworker known as “family support workers.” To start, a team of roughly 10 family support workers will be hired to regularly interface with families in Bernalillo County who have been the subject of three or more child welfare investigations in the past 10 years, connecting those families to services, visiting their homes, and monitoring the use and effectiveness of interventions. If the program is successful at helping these families avoid further interaction with CYFD and law enforcement, the family support worker model could be extended to other areas of the state.
“It's a new approach -- one that will allow us to take a more proactive, deeper interest in families where CYFD has been regularly called to intervene, even when investigations of those incidents were unable to substantiate abuse or neglect of the children in the home,” said Governor Martinez. “Something's clearly happening in these homes that periodic interaction with a family support worker and counseling services might be able to alleviate.”
In this same vein, the Governor will continue to fight for legislation that would allow a court to order counseling services and interventions for families who frequently int
eract with CYFD. The legislation failed to pass in the recently concluded legislative session.
Finally, Governor Martinez will mandate that all law enforcement agencies under the State’s control require their officers to make contact with CYFD’s Statewide Central Intake (SCI) when dispatched to or investigating a child abuse incident to determine the number and nature of prior interactions between the child’s household and CYFD. Currently, SCI operators are available to provide this information to law enforcement officers, but they are rarely contacted to do so.
“An officer who is dispatched to a child abuse incident is better prepared to handle the situation if he or she is aware of the household's previous interaction with CYFD,” said New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas. “This information can also have a critical impact on the officer's ultimate assessment of the safety of those residing in the home. The SCI center doesn't have to just field reports; it can provide important information as well, and I'm going to make sure that our officers utilize it to the fullest extent possible.”
The Governor hopes other law enforcement agencies throughout the State will also choose to require their officers to obtain this information from SCI, and the Governor will once again request that lawmakers fund a computer systems project that is under phased development to automate this information so that it can be immediately shared with any law enforcement entity in the State.
Recruit and Retain Additional CYFD Caseworkers
Currently, CYFD is hiring caseworkers at a pace that is only sufficient to keep up with the current loss of caseworkers, largely due to the difficult nature of the work, a lack of competitive pay with surrounding states or similar jobs, and employee retirements. Changing this trend requires stronger efforts to retain current caseworkers and hire new ones at a quicker pace.
Governor Martinez has directed CYFD to immediately hire a specialized recruiter, working with NMSU and schools of social work, to identify hiring prospects and recruit them into the agency. Additionally, she has established a “priority hiring team” that will consist of four CYFD employees and one State Personnel Office employee to focus solely on recruiting and hiring caseworkers, with an emphasis on getting those workers into the field as quickly as possible.
With respect to compensation, caseworkers have already received a 4% increase in base pay in the current fiscal year and will receive an additional 3% as a result of the recently passed budget for fiscal year 2015. Roughly one year ago, the Governor also approved a general classification increase for CYFD investigators (resulting in a higher pay band), recognizing that the work they perform is at a higher level than what was called for under their previous classification. Building on these efforts, Governor Martinez is now directing the State Personnel Office to implement a full reclassification of the Protective Services Division at CYFD, reforming the way in which caseworkers are hired and promoted, and bringing the salaries of all caseworkers into better alignment with competing employers and states. CYFD will now also provide higher pay to qualified applicants who are willing to serve as caseworkers in rural communities, where recruitment can be most difficult. And, the Governor has directed an upward adjustment of 3 percent for all minimum starting salaries for newly hired caseworkers.
“Social work is one of the most noble forms of public service, but it's certainly not easy,” said Governor Martinez. “Being a caseworker entails long hours and difficult judgment calls relating to the safety and custody of New Mexico children. I'm hopeful that improving compensation, allowing for more promotional opportunities, and providing additional training and professional development will allow us to recruit more caseworkers into CYFD and keep them there for many years to come.”
As part of the budget just signed by Governor Martinez, funding for the CYFD Academy of Professional Development will increase by $100,000, a boost of more than 10 percent over its current budget. CYFD plans to better deploy technology and web-based trainings as a way to increase its training and professional development activities for current caseworkers. This will also reduce the amount of time and money it often takes to hold in-person trainings in various parts of the state, allowing caseworkers to spend more time doing their jobs and less time on the road.
Governor Martinez proposed these initiatives and is instituting them following an intensive review of the recent death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela in Albuquerque. The Governor, her staff, and CYFD officials examined the details of the case, including asking other highly experienced caseworkers to review the case and provide general feedback on policies and procedures for child abuse investigations at CYFD. This constructive discussion and review, which later included the New Mexico State Police and Department of Public Safety, helped identify certain gaps in the current approach to investigating and reducing the number of child abuse incidents in New Mexico -- which the reforms announced today are designed to help address.