By Rep. Kelly Fajardo (R-District 7)
Antonio Gurule was a beautiful two-year-old boy who was thriving in foster care. His foster parents, who had tended to him since he was two months old, welcomed him into their family and tried to adopt him.
They were not successful. Three months ago, Antonio was returned to the custody of his biological mother. On September 3, he was found unresponsive in his crib with blood coming from his nose and a half-dollar sized lump on his head. The Office of the Medical Investigator determined he had died the night before.
Antonio’s name now joins a list of other children who were failed by New Mexico’s child protection system. Jeremiah Valencia. Victoria Martens. Omaree Varela. These children might still be with us today had our children’s services done a better job.
New Mexico’s rate of children dying from child abuse and neglect is consistently above the national average. Too many children in our state have experienced abuse and trauma. The annual number of reported child abuse victims climbed from 4,846 in 2009 to a peak of 10,664 in 2015. Although we have made some progress in reducing that number, it’s still not enough.
Child abuse resulting in death has to stop. We need a complete overhaul of our state’s child protection practices that takes a comprehensive view of children’s services and includes input from stakeholders if we want improve child safety in New Mexico.
Real reform requires looking at the entire system and making comprehensive changes. Steve Pearce has developed such a plan. His strategy includes specific ideas for reforming our Children, Youth and Families Department, overhauling protective custody procedures, and reexamining policies that prematurely remove children from safe foster care environments and returns them to unstable family situations. It looks at the child services system from every angle and offers solutions that will make a difference.
Unfortunately, some politicians are so singularly focused on increasing government spending that they advocate throwing more money at already overfunded programs. Their answer is to take money from the state’s permanent fund to expand home visitation programs. However, providers throughout the state are returning home visitation funds back to the government because of a lack of demand for this service. The home visitation program is voluntary, and the families of the children who would most benefit from this service often refuse to enroll.
Significantly, the permanent fund option ignores the voice of the people on the front lines: the direct service providers and others in the trenches who work these issues every day. Expanding home visitation is a top-down approach advocated by people working in office buildings in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. It’s time for us to listen to front-line providers and ask them what will help them protect our children. Being willing to have honest, and potentially uncomfortable, conversations with people at every level of the system is the first step to identifying the problems and fixing them.
As it stands, our state’s services for child health and well-being are a shattered collection of good intentions and failed policies. It’s time to start over and build a functional system that protects our children and allows them to thrive. Steve Pearce’s plan will help.
Band-aid solutions aren’t enough. It’s time to perform major surgery on our child services system. Like any surgery, there will be some pain involved, and it might take a while to heal. But it will be worth it if we can prevent another child’s name from being added to that tragic list of children we have lost.