CYFD reform efforts hit dead end in Roundhouse

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Child welfare advocates across New Mexico thought 2023 was the year state leaders tackle the problems surrounding the Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD). 

“I was feeling optimistic until 11:59 on the last day of the session,” said Maralyn Beck, Executive Director of New Mexico Child First Network. “We were feeling so optimistic, and I think optimism turned to hope and desperation.” 

Out of the 212 bills signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, only four directly affect CYFD operations.

Beck says none of those bills are bringing the much-desired transparency and oversight many believe the department is missing. 

“We are exactly where we were 90 days ago. And our children are no better off,” Beck said “We had a real opportunity during the session to pass meaningful legislation. And we left every single substantive reform on the table.” 

These are the three bills Beck believes were the biggest losses from the session:

  • HB 10: CYFD Info Sharing – this proposal would’ve removed the confidentiality clause from the Children’s Code. State lawmakers say the goal was to allow CYFD to share pertinent information with necessary agencies.
  • HB 11 – Office of the Child Advocate – This proposal would’ve established an independent oversight office – otherwise known as an ombudsman – for the agency. Beck says 43 other states already have a child welfare oversight division. She and many state lawmakers believe increased oversight is what CYFD needs most right now.
  • SB 150 – CYFD Plan of Care Failure Assessments – This proposal would’ve expanded the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act (CARA). The program handles cases involving newborns who are exposed to drugs or other harmful substances. The proposal would’ve required CYFD perform an assessment for families who decline services provided by the program. 

All three bills gained bi-partisan support from lawmakers and community advocates during the legislative session. HB 10 and HB 11 even garnered support from CYFD leaders who at one point told KOB 4 they support increased transparency and oversight. It’s not clear why the proposals did not cross the finish line despite earning broad support from Democrats and Republicans in both chambers.

Beck suspects the governor’s office may have played a role in their demise. 

“We heard directly from the governor in her executive order that she wants to be the person to really fix this, as she said ‘dysfunctional agency’,” Beck said. 

The governor signed an executive order in mid-February to immediately restructure CYFD into three major internal departments. She believes the reorganization will bring more transparency and oversight to the department, but a few state lawmakers and community advocates believe it’s another attempt to address CYFD’s problems from within.

A CYFD spokesperson confirmed Wednesday the agency is still hiring the new department heads. An advisory committee was appointed back in March to oversee the department’s transition.

One bill connected to CYFD reform efforts did reach the governor’s desk – a proposal to create a Civil Rights Division inside the Attorney General’s office. 

“We felt like the AG really heard this cry to ‘please help us let’s do better,” Beck said. “There was finally someone who was willing to put it on the line and have a solution, and then it got vetoed.” 

The governor pocket vetoed the bill – which means she did not sign it before Friday’s deadline. Attorney General Raul Torrez, state lawmakers and even members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation have spoken out against the governor’s decision. They stressed the importance and need for CYFD oversight.

Beck believes it’s possible to see CYFD reform bills back in the roundhouse during the 30-day legislative session in 2024 – which the governor has control over. Beck says the increased transparency bill gained support from CYFD and the governor and believes it could have a shot next year.