After settling suit, CYFD sets out to reform child welfare system

2020-04-19 | The Santa Fe New Mexican

April 19-- Apr. 19--Foster youth advocates and state agencies attempting an unprecedented reform effort of New Mexico's child welfare system anticipate holding a summit in the summer -- virtually, if they have to.

It will be the first of many meetings between the Children, Youth and Families Department, the Human Services Department, advocates and lawyers for foster youth, and three child welfare experts to determine how to overhaul the system.

In 2018, lawyers representing 13 children in the state's care sued New Mexico, alleging the child welfare system's practices "systematically re-traumatize vulnerable children."

The parties settled the lawsuit last month, with representatives saying the agreement provides needed reform.

The settlement requires agencies to seriously reform the system's placement of Native children, build behavioral health care for youth, make appropriate placements for protective care and minimize trauma for children in care.

According to the settlement, CYFD agreed to pay $2.4 million in legal fees for the plaintiffs in addition to its own costs. No monetary damages were awarded to foster youth.

Deadlines are set up to three years in the future, and every year, a neutral party will evaluate if the agency has made adequate progress in furthering its goals. The child welfare experts evaluating the agency's progress are:

* Kevin Ryan, who has worked for Public Catalyst, a New Jersey-based child welfare contractor, for more than a decade. He's monitored federal courts in Texas and helped resolve child welfare disputes across states.

* Judith Meltzer, president of the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, D.C. She has a background in resolving class-action litigation with child welfare systems.

* Pamela Hyde, a former secretary of the New Mexico Human Services Department and former administrator under President Barack Obama of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. She now consults in Santa Fe for Hyde Associates -- Policy And Practice Consulting.

To meet the first deadline of Dec. 1, meetings and plans are starting now.

Jesselyn Friley, a staff attorney at Public Counsel, which represented foster children and advocates in the lawsuit, said attorneys met with the neutral party overseeing the agreement, as well as agencies, to hash out the next steps.

"Our plan for a first in-person summit is in July that may have to move or move to Zoom, depending on the COVID-19 situation," Friley said.

Friley said Public Counsel recently hosted its first meeting over Zoom for foster parents and behavioral health providers and some former foster youth to receive input and expected to host other meetings with the state agencies.

She said the agreement was made with the understanding the overhaul would take years.

"The overarching goal is to build trust and an ongoing relationship with the state agencies," Friley said. "A lot of our plans in the months before now and December are oriented towards that."

By Dec. 1, the agencies agree to publish data and submit a report of their performance over the last year in improving the system.

Friley said the neutral party will determine if the departments made adequate progress.

Brian Blalock, who heads CYFD, said the department is prepared for virtual meetings if needed.

"We're trying to keep everything on the same timeline, just doing it remotely," he said.

Legislative leaders have suggested a special session would likely occur in June or July, when state lawmakers are expected to rein in budget increases approved in February.

Blalock said it's too early to tell how proposed budget cuts might affect the overhaul.

"We'll turn our attention to that fully when that happens because no one, no one is going to know what's going to happen," Blalock said.