NM agency wants shift in services for children

Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press
Child welfare

ALBUQUERQUE — Establishing a special center to address the immediate needs of victims of child abuse and neglect would help reduce the trauma experienced when children have to be removed from their homes, the head of New Mexico’s child welfare agency told lawmakers Wednesday.

During a meeting in Santa Fe, Children, Youth and Families Secretary Monique Jacobson outlined for the Legislative Finance Committee her plan for building a $30 million wellness center that she said would have the potential to change outcomes for children who enter the protective services system.

Jacobson described scenarios now in which children who haven’t eaten or bathed are loaded up for a quick trip to a fast-food restaurant or carted through office buildings to a makeshift shower closet. Sometimes sleeping in an office is the only option until a foster family can be identified.

There’s no access to basic medical treatment to determine if a child has ever been to the dentist or might have diaper rash.

And when it’s time to reconnect family members, they’re often forced to wait in crowded hallways or dingy conference rooms where the cries of other children or voices of irate parents are hard to ignore.

“As a state, we owe it to these children to do better,” Jacobson said. “We work constantly — and you all work constantly — on addressing the root issues that bring us to this space, but the bottom line is, right now, children are in that situation.”

At any given time, Jacobson said, about 900 children in the state’s most populous county experience what she described. In all, there are more than 2,200 children in state custody.

“While we do need to continue to address the deep root causes, we also need to make sure we’re doing right by these children on a daily basis, that we’re minimizing the trauma,” she said.

The Children, Youth and Families Department has identified a complex of office buildings in Albuquerque that could house the wellness center. A California-based investment company is selling the 348,000-square-foot property for about $10 million and officials estimate it would cost another $20 million for renovations and furnishings.

A mix of general fund dollars, capital outlay and money from the state building bond fund could be used to finance the project.

There would be room for other state agencies to consolidate offices in the complex, officials said.

The agency’s budget request for the next fiscal year includes $5 million for moving expenses and information technology costs related to getting the space ready for nearly 550 employees.

Lawmakers grilled Jacobson about the request, suggesting other property in Albuquerque would be less expensive. They also requested more information, including an in-depth appraisal and environmental review.

Several committee members warned the budget will be tight next year and requests for funding already outweigh expected new revenues.

Jacobson and officials with the state General Services Department said establishing the wellness center is among Gov. Susana Martinez’s priorities and that plans call for it to happen in phases over the next few years.