- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - New Mexico lawmakers on Tuesday challenged the new head of the state child welfare agency, questioning her about what she plans to do to ensure that federal dollars are put to use rather than sent back by the state.

Monique Jacobson, incoming secretary of the Children, Youth and Families Department, testified before the Senate Finance Committee, marking her first time in the legislative hot seat since she was appointed to the position in December. Jacobson previously served as head of the state Tourism Department.

Jacobson said she’s excited to tackle the challenges ahead and promised to account for every dollar.

With childhood initiatives being a priority for the Legislature and the governor’s office, Jacobson said: “We’ll be able to make a significant difference in the lives of children.”

Lawmakers expressed support and confidence in her and asked her to act with urgency.

Sen. Howie Morales, D-Silver City, was among the lawmakers who expressed concern that up to $21 million in federal funding did not get spent by the department during the last fiscal year. He urged Jacobson to figure out what happened.

Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, said with 900 children on a waiting list for services, the state cannot let federal dollars slip away.

“We’ll absolutely make sure we get the funding,” Jacobson said.

Jacobson also outlined her top priorities for the agency, including tightening internal financial controls, improving communication with law enforcement and expanding services aimed at preventing abuse and neglect.

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. The agency is also under pressure to continue with a series of executive orders and policy reforms implemented by Gov. Susana Martinez last year.

As part of the changes, Jacobson said she would like to add 45 new workers and open a reintegration center for youth that would serve as a step between a secure facility and moving them back into the community.

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