Sep. 17—After a rocky start this summer, an independent state agency that provides attorneys for abused and neglected children and their families in Children’s Court in New Mexico is running out of money.
The new Office of Family Representation and Advocacy (OFRA) is seeking $1.5 million in emergency funding from the state Board of Finance on Tuesday, in part because of an uptick in child abuse and neglect cases being filed by the state Children, Youth and Families Department.
The number of cases in which CYFD has taken custody of children abused and/or neglected by their parents or caretakers is up nearly 30% over last year at this time, according to Beth Gillia, executive director of the new office.
“There has been a dramatic and unforeseen increase in the number of abuse/neglect cases being filed by CYFD that required OFRA attorneys,” states an agency request to the Board of Finance. “The increase in case filings occurred after a multi-year downward trend in annual case filings, from 564 in 2018 to 448 in 2022.”
“As of the end of July 2023, CYFD had already filed 339 cases statewide, placing it on a firm upward path that will likely exceed the number of new cases in each of the last five calendar years.”
It wasn’t clear whether CYFD is now removing children from their homes more often or whether abuse and/or neglect is on the rise in New Mexico. A CYFD spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to Journal questions about the increase.
In recent years, CYFD has been criticized for leaving children in unsafe homes, rather than filing formal court proceedings to remove them for their safety. While such court cases are pending, children may enter foster care or be placed with relatives in lieu of their parents while efforts are made toward family reunification, when possible. Sometimes they end up being adopted.
New Mexico requires the appointment of attorneys for children, youth and indigent parents accused in court of maltreatment. The state Legislature in 2021 created the Office of Family Representation and Advocacy to improve the legal services.
Lawmakers appropriated about $10 million for the agency’s first fiscal year of operation, some $3 million short of its $13.6 million request.
The new agency is supposed to have regional offices around New Mexico but has canceled plans to go out to bid for office space. Gillia said staff are working remotely for the time being. And at least one nonprofit organization that has provided lawyers only has a contract until January.
Gillia said there was “an incredible amount of transition planning” before the agency opened July 1. But under state personnel rules, hiring staff and attorneys couldn’t occur before then. So far, about 85 contract attorneys have been hired.
In the past, the Administrative Office of the Courts oversaw about 110 attorney contracts for Children’s Courts each year, according to a legislative analysis.
Aside from the financial issues, the shift in the management of legal services for children and families has generated criticism that the office is pro-parent.
“I have serious concerns about how this new agency will address the dire issue of child safety in New Mexico,” said Marron Lee, an attorney who is a guardian ad litem (appointed by the court in custody cases) for children. “I believe it’s further entrenching policies and decisions that put the child last.”
The agency’s model is to assign social workers, peer monitors, and other support staff to help parents who are accused in court of abuse or neglect. Gillia said it is “our dream” to eventually provide such teams for children and youth.
Ultimately, the goal is to reduce attorney caseloads, to get abused and neglected children into a permanent living setting, and to shorten the length of time children are in foster care, Gillia said. She added that such models have proven effective in reducing repeated maltreatment of children.
Other jurisdictions with such systems “are really finding that listening to the family, letting them share their knowledge about what they actually need to be successful, and then tailoring services to those needs, actually does result in kids being safer in the long run. So the higher rate of reunification is a positive all the way around,” Gillia told the Journal.
But some lawyers who have represented abused and neglected children are unhappy that they will be required to also represent parents, or caregivers accused of maltreatment in other cases. The dual mission poses a conflict of interest, they say.
For instance, they say, a lawyer might have to argue in one abuse or neglect case that a parent’s substance problem is harmful to the child and then have to turn around and defend a drug-addicted parent in another case.
But Gillia said the agency isn’t requiring each attorney to represent an equal number of parents and children, but all lawyers must accept some cases in which they are assigned to parents.
“This is really important to us,” Gillia said, adding that the exposure to both sides will improve the quality of legal representation overall.
While the Board of Finance is expected to take up the emergency funding request on Tuesday, Gillia said more money will be needed after that for the agency to fully fund its interdisciplinary approach.
“Some people think we must be doing something wrong if we’re already projected to be at a shortfall,” she said. “But I think the fact that we know and knew in July that we were going to have this problem meant we were paying attention. We’re trying to take every step humanly possible to make sure that the transition to our agency was seamless for our clients. We don’t want them to have a gap in coverage.”