Advocates for women rally for legislation
SANTA FE – Diana Maze says she had a "falling out" with her daughter's father that led to a restraining order against the man — "I ended up in the hospital, and he ended up in jail."
Raising her 4-year-old daughter on her own, with about $1,000 a month in take-home pay, she has struggled to cover the $600 monthly cost of child care, she said. But when she sought help through the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, she was told that she first had to sue her former partner for child support. She refused. She said she believed that contacting her alleged abuser would have put her and her daughter in danger.
Maze faced a dilemma that has affected many families in a state rated third in the nation for both domestic violence and female homicides, according to 2013 statistics reported by National Network to End Domestic Violence and the Violence Policy Center.
Two years ago, Maze, 25, of Albuquerque, learned about OLÉ, a nonprofit organization that advocates for working families and economic reform. She joined its fight for a change at CYFD to help protect victims of domestic violence — a check box on child care aid forms where applicants with safety concerns can request a waiver from the child support requirement.
Following pressure from OLÉ, CYFD Secretary Monique Jacobson agreed in December to add a check box, and agency spokesman Henry Varela said the updated forms were sent to offices throughout the state Jan. 6.
Thursday morning, Maze stood with dozens of members of OLÉ and other women's advocacy groups outside the state Capitol, speaking in support of proposed legislation that calls for further changes at CYFD to protect women and children who have suffered domestic violence.
The group also rallied in favor of a House measure proposing a constitutional amendment allowing the state to tap the nearly $15 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to fund early education programs — a move Jacobson opposes — and voiced opposition to abortion restrictions and work requirements for food aid recipients in areas with high unemployment rates. The crowd — composed of both men and women — held signs saying, "Stand with women" and "Don't stand in the way."
"The Parents Bill of Rights is a common-sense law," Maze told the crowd, referring to House Bill 161, sponsored by Rep. Deborah Armstrong, an Albuquerque Democrat. "It allows survivors of domestic violence to have an extra layer of protection from their abusive ex-partners."
HB 161 would remove any requirement that victims of domestic violence cooperate with child support enforcement before receiving child care assistance. It would prohibit the department from denying aid for an eligible applicant who refuses to sue for child support, and it calls for the department to include a section on aid applications addressing domestic violence. The new aid form would ask if any member of the household has been a victim of domestic violence and would state that child support requirements can be waived for those who believe they would be harmed if they pursue child support.
Armstrong said the bill wouldn't just require a new check box on the aid form. The measure also "requires that CYFD acknowledges that, takes your word for that ... and so you don't have to jump through any more hoops."
The bill would end a current policy requiring aid applicants to submit a statement explaining why they believe that pursuing child support could put them in danger.
"They should take your word," Armstrong said. "That should be good enough."
She said the bill also requires training for CYFD workers about the new policy "so that they are more responsive and more respectful of women and what they've gone through and how they're trying to protect their families and their children."
In an email Thursday, Varela said CYFD workers are expected to explain the department's child support waiver option to applicants. "The addition of a check box on the child support form does not change the waiver process and serves as an additional avenue in the process to remind the applicants that there is a waiver available to them and also serves as an additional way to inform the CYFD employee that the applicant is requesting this waiver," he said.
Reina Acosta, 24, of Albuquerque and the mother of a 4-year-old boy, said she learned the hard way about the agency's waiver, which her caseworker had never mentioned when she applied for child care assistance. "You have to tell the caseworker" about the policy, she said. "That's not fair. It's not right."
Unlike Maze, Acosta finally gave in to CYFD's requirement that she seek child support from her former partner, although she feared what that would mean for her and her son. "It was a scary situation," knowing that her alleged abuser could come back, she said.
Luckily, Acosta said, the man didn't pursue her. But she still asks herself: "Is it worth it?"