- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 10, 2014

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - It will take an infusion of about $10 million if New Mexico wants to move ahead with and expand reforms to improve the way child abuse cases are investigated and tracked in New Mexico, child welfare officials told lawmakers Wednesday.

The Children, Youth and Families Department made its case for the funding during a Legislative Finance Committee meeting.

The request encompasses the costs of numerous policy changes and directives the agency made in the wake of the death of Omaree Varela, a 9-year-old Albuquerque boy who police say was repeatedly kicked by his mother. The case set off a firestorm of criticism against Albuquerque police and the child welfare agency for not removing the boy from his home after receiving earlier reports of abuse.

Jennifer Padgett, the agency’s deputy secretary, acknowledged the gaps identified by the Varela case and told lawmakers the reforms are targeted at making sure cases such as Omaree’s don’t fall through the cracks.

“Can we say 100 percent that there will not be another tragedy at the hands of a child’s parents? No. Do we have the infrastructure and the proactive measures in place to do everything we can to prevent it? We’re working on that,” she said.

The agency has been hamstrung in recent years by staffing shortages and overwhelming caseloads.

A large portion of the funding requested for the next budget year would pay for 93 new full-time positions in the protective services division to help with the growing caseload. With more staffers, overtime pay could be curbed, burnout reduced and a more manageable workload created, Padgett said.

“This is a retention effort,” she said. “What these investigators see on a day-by-day basis is tragedy and with that comes a very, very heavy burden.”

In October, protective services caseworkers each investigated nearly 14 reports. If all proposed and vacant full-time positions are filled, that would drop to less than 10. The national standard ranges between 10 and 12 cases per worker per month.

Staffers also reported working an average of 24 permanency cases in October. The national standard for those types of cases tops out at 15.

Also included in the funding request is money to establish several child advocacy centers around the state that would be staffed by caseworkers as well as law enforcement agents. The center that opened in August in Valencia County has been well received, officials said.

The agency also wants to open four more support sites around the state that would offer short-term intervention for families that have three or more referrals related to allegations of abuse or neglect. The site in Bernalillo County just recently started to reach out to families, officials said.

Several lawmakers agreed the reforms are critical but asked agency officials to look for areas where they could trim their requests.

The Legislature will have less money to work with when hammering out the budget during the 60-day session that starts in January. A drop in oil prices has reduced the revenue forecast.

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