- Associated Press - Monday, December 22, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Gov. Susana Martinez on Monday announced another round of cabinet changes, including a shift that will have the state’s tourism chief leading the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.

Yolanda Deines, who has headed the agency for four years, will be stepping down. Tourism Secretary Monique Jacobson will take her place.

Martinez said Jacobson has a strong desire to improve the well-being of New Mexico’s children and is willing to work alongside case workers and child advocates.

“Moving forward, I feel Secretary Jacobson is the right person to lead the Children, Youth, and Families Department,” Martinez said in a statement. “Her strong intellect and impeccable management skills will serve the agency well, and she is a leader who is well known for producing results.”

The agency has been hampered in recent years by staffing shortages, an overwhelming caseload and a series of high-profile abuse cases that have drawn criticism.

It’s also in the midst of a massive reform effort aimed at changing the way child abuse and neglect cases are investigated. The reforms were initiated earlier this year in response to the case of 9-year-old Omaree Varela of Albuquerque who police say was kicked to death by his mother in December 2013.

Child advocates described leading the agency as an incredible challenge, further complicated by New Mexico’s consistent ranking near the bottom when it comes to child well-being and poverty.

Patrick Tyrrell, executive director of the National Association of Social Workers’ New Mexico chapter, said it’s important for the next leader to have a grasp of the issues that face struggling families.

“Given the gravity of the task and the complexity of working with families, one really needs to have that understanding,” he said.

Veronica Garcia, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children, said the focus within the agency needs to change and early intervention and family support should be boosted.

“We have an expectation that whoever heads this department will put a greater focus on child protection and prevention of child abuse,” Garcia said. “It seems like there has been a focus on coming in after the fact and investigating child abuse or removing children from the home, and I think we need a shift to prevention.”

A native New Mexican, Jacobson worked for several major corporations before taking over the Tourism Department in 2011. During her tenure, she implemented the “New Mexico True” campaign and visitor spending in the state has increased.

Rebecca Latham will take Jacobson’s place at the Tourism Department. She currently serves as the agency’s communications director.

The governor also named Barbara Damron to lead the Higher Education Department. She will replace Jose Garcia, who is stepping down.

Damron is an associate professor at the University of New Mexico’s College of Nursing. She also directs the Office of Community Partnerships & Cancer Health Disparities and the Hispanic and Native American Community Outreach program at the University of New Mexico Cancer Center.

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