- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 1, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Gov. Susana Martinez signed legislation Wednesday aimed at helping New Mexico recruit and retain child abuse caseworkers and praised lawmakers for including money in the budget to continue with reforms of the child welfare system.

Martinez, a former district attorney, acknowledged that caseworkers with the state Children, Youth and Families Department have difficult jobs and the agency has been hampered by staffing shortages, turnover and an overwhelming caseload.

The legislation, she said, marks a step toward reducing the high turnover rate.

“We know that you all work very long hours, make many sacrifices and often find yourselves even in dangerous situations,” Martinez said, looking to the workers who gathered for the signing ceremony. “Too often the demands of the job lead experienced caseworkers to leave CYFD.”

The legislation, which unanimously passed both chambers during an otherwise partisan session, establishes a student loan repayment program for workers who pursued degrees in social work or other fields critical to protective services and juvenile justice.

They must have worked for the agency for at least a year and serve in positions or areas where recruitment is a challenge.

The budget, which is awaiting Martinez’s signature, includes $450,000 for the loan repayment program. The governor said she had requested $1 million and plans to ask for more money next year.

Another recruiting tool has been stipends for college student who commit to work for the child welfare agency. Nearly $850,000 has been budgeted for this fiscal year.

The Children, Youth and Families Department is in the midst of a massive reform effort aimed at changing the way child abuse and neglect cases are investigated.

The reforms came about last year in response to the death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela of Albuquerque.

Police said Omaree was kicked to death by his mother in December 2013. Synthia Varela-Casaus pleaded not guilty and she’s set for trial in October.

Police and agency workers had investigated prior abuse complaints at the home before the boy’s death and one police visit was never relayed to the agency.

Martinez personally reviewed the case and unveiled a series of policy changes, directives and other initiatives. She said Wednesday she was pleased the budget includes more funding for child advocacy centers, the sharing of information with law enforcement and more support for caseworkers.

“It’s one thing to lay out a reform, a great idea, with no money behind it,” she said. “It’s even better when you can push that reform forward because you have that funding that supports that great idea.”

The budget includes enough money for 45 additional caseworkers, with the goal of reducing their caseloads to meet national standards. The average caseload for an investigator in the agency’s Protective Services Division is 89 children per year; the national average is 69 cases.

The division has more than 860 full-time employees and more than half of them are case workers.

The agency has been working over the last year to hire more caseworkers, something the legislation is expected to help with. In the last three months alone, the department said the vacancy rate among workers in the field has been cut in half to 12 percent.

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