© 2018 New Mexico News Services 12-3-18
New governor must overhaul New Mexico’s child protection system
By Sherry Robinson
All She Wrote
            Two years ago, a TV reporter talked to an experienced social worker who left the Children, Youth and Families Department. She said employees were doing their best to help the state’s struggling families, but "it's asking for the impossible."    
          As Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham’s transition team begins to roll, CYFD will be high on the priority list. Many people call for reform. What would that mean?
          It means a hard look at the agency, the system, and the laws. What we’ll probably find is that they all evolved to address garden variety neglect and substance abuse and not parents who have fried their brains on meth, not households with a psychopathic boyfriend or girlfriend.
          We’ll find a system with emphasis on returning kids to their parents, a practice supported by studies and now written in federal law. But no study ever envisioned Cynthia Varela, mother of Omaree. Studies and practice would provide treatment to addicted parents, but what treatment was possible for stepdad Thomas Ferguson, who tortured young Jeremiah Valencia?
          Some families are a child’s worst nightmare.
          We’ll find the lie of “small government” that started in 2011. Gov. Susana Martinez embraced the idea of shrinking state government, without considering what each employee was doing. Numbers fell. Budgets tightened. Children died. A smaller CYFD was not a better CYFD. With the horrifying child deaths in the last few years was the news that vacancy rates at CYFD were as high as 26 percent.
          Understaffing means fewer people share the work, and remaining employees shoulder bigger case loads. So instead of having the recommended 12 cases, a social worker has 20 or more stressful cases in which each decision could be life or death. Morale plunges. Overwhelmed employees burn out and leave, handing off their cases to their over-extended co-workers. Cases – children – fall through the cracks. Accountability slips.
          Now we know that the unsupervised foster care system that receives these poor little souls is also a shambles. Children may find themselves in situations as bad or worse than their desperate homes.
          And yet, in 2016, CYFD kicked off Martinez’s $2.7 million “PullTogether” campaign to “make New Mexico the best place to be a kid.” Archbishop John C. Wester said instead of singing a jingle, the state’s leaders should spend money for state-assisted child care and food stamps.
          Understaffing and turnover explain, in part, why most of these kids were well known to teachers, cops and CYFD itself and yet they remained for years in dreadful situations. Lujan Grisham wrote in an op-ed, “It is outrageous, unacceptable and disturbing that … the system created to help these children and others just like them failed.”
          “The fact that they were left to endure years of preventable trauma raises alarming concerns about the state of this critical agency and the systems and processes that should have prevented these horrific events,” she wrote. “The failure in communication between authorities that could have stopped this abuse is unconscionable, and what happened to these children is inexcusable.”
          Lujan Grisham promised to “build a vigilant CYFD focused on preventing tragedies rather than reacting to them, comprised of qualified, trained and committed staff working to ensure the safety, stability and prosperity of our most vulnerable children.”
          Her fix would involve “hiring, training and retaining skilled social workers and leaders,” as well as overhauling reporting and auditing processes. And she would resurrect the Children’s Cabinet, an initiative of former Lt. Gov. Diane Denish to encourage collaboration by the helping agencies.
          The new governor’s first step should be to hire a seasoned professional as CYFD secretary. That choice will signal her intentions.
          Here’s another item for the to-do list: Listen to CYFD employees – the people who, despite bad publicity, inexperienced management, and ridiculous case loads, stayed and tried to help.

Sherry Robinson photo

Columns appear here a week after they're sent to newspaper subscribers.

Lower oil prices good for world, less so for New Mexico
By Harold Morgan
New Mexico Progress
The solvency discussion is over for New Mexico’s state government.
That discussion drove policy decisions in 2009 with the effects of the national Great Recession and again in 2014 when oil prices collapsed. Around state government, it was ugly. In case anyone has forgotten, talking about solvency means figuring out how to not run out of money.
Financial discussions today offer two themes.
Locally the tale is about the money, an estimated $1.5 billion in “new money” (the difference between this year’s spending and next year’s revenue) for the 2019-2020 budget year. The money is coming from vastly increased oil and gas production, especially from the Permian Basin in Lea and Eddy counties. National publications tell a second Permian Basin story, one decorated with caution.
The newest economic forecast from the University of New Mexico’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research lends a warm glow to all the money. “We are in the strongest position we’ve been in since 2008,” BBER director Jeff Mitchell told a conference last month. Year-over-year wage job gains of 1.3 percent, or 10,500 jobs, are seen for this year and 2019 with annual job growth of 1.2 percent through 2023.
BBER’s forecast sees oil in the $50 to $80/bbl range.
But wait. As of this writing, oil was at $50.42/bbl, a drop of around one-third since early October. A Nov. 26 Wall Street Journal story said lower oil prices would be good for the national economy; lower oil prices trickle through to you and me in all sorts of happy ways. That $50/bbl is the bottom of BBER’s range.
A hint of Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham’s approach came Thanksgiving week with the report that she is considering dumping the order to consolidate state government personnel functions because the plan would lead to more job vacancies. If this happens it would mean that the new administration is reverting to the old New Mexico public ethic of state government being the first and last resort for employment. It would also be a blow to productivity in government, a conceptual oxymoron anyway. The point of such consolidation is to do the same with less.
The state may be getting lucky about some serious matters. Our two big pension funds are way in the hole with regard to the amount of money expected over time and the amount owed to retirees. The Educational Retirement Board plans to ask for $248.3 million as a one-time injection. The other fund is the Public Employees Retirement Association.
The reserve account, the hedge against falling revenue, is up some. But allocating a major piece to reserves—maybe half—of the $1.5 billion would comfort the financial worriers. Addressing the perpetual nine-figure difference between highway construction and maintenance desires and available money would be nice.
A thorough look—the headline was “Peering inside the Permian—appeared recently in The Economist, the British news and culture magazine.
The production growth has been “growth for growth’s sake,” a function of low interest rates and the high productivity and short well life of shale oil wells; 80 per cent of a well’s productivity happens with the first two years. Oil company investors have noticed the shortage of profit from the drilling frenzy.
Transmission capacity is strained, though some relief is expected in a year when new pipelines open. Storage capacity is also strained. New employees are hard to find.
Companies are responding to the challenges (think profit) by buying one another and seeking improved production techniques.
Lower oil prices are good for the world by squeezing Iran, Russia and Venezuela. For New Mexico, though, not so much. With zero ability to affect prices, we’re stuck with going with the flow. Cautiously, I hope.