- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 16, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - The number of certified foster families in New Mexico has grown by more than 20 percent over the last two years, but state officials say there’s still more that needs to be done to meet growing demand.

There are nearly 1,300 foster families across New Mexico, according to the latest figures provided by the state Children, Youth and Families Department. That includes full-time foster parents as well as those who are available only for emergency situations or to provide respite for foster families.

Child welfare officials are pushing in New Mexico to raise awareness of the continued need as May marks National Foster Care Month throughout the country.

Monique Jacobson, head of the state child welfare agency, said during a recent interview that the increase in foster parents is partly the result of efforts to boost retention by providing more support for those willing to take in children in the state’s custody.

The agency also is helping those who are interested in becoming foster parents to better navigate what can be a rigorous months-long certification process.

“What we wanted to do was make sure that those who are doing it for the right reasons, that are in it because of their heart and because it’s their purpose, that we’re giving them the support they need so they don’t have to drop out for reasons that are within our control,” she said.

But Jacobson and others have acknowledged that the state still has more work to do since the number of children in custody has been steadily climbing since 2011. Now, there are more than 2,600 children in the system and not enough foster parents to go around.

The problem is seen across the U.S., with officials pointing to a high turnover rate and the unwanted consequences that come from children having to be moved to new families or be sheltered in agency offices until suitable homes can be found.

In New Mexico, child welfare workers are focusing on identifying relatives first who can provide a safe place for children until they can be reunited with their parents.

Jacobson said children in state custody do better when they are placed are in familiar settings with people they know.

State Senate Majority Whip Michael Padilla, who grew up in foster care, sponsored a bill during the last legislative session that would have given relatives first right of refusal when authorities are trying to place children with families.

The bill would have required background checks, home inspections and a signed affidavit to ensure the child wouldn’t be return to the parent until the family crisis was resolved. The Democrat-controlled Legislature passed the measure, but it was vetoed by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

“I know of hundreds of situations where families came forward but it became a complete nightmare for them to become a foster parent, if at all,” said Padilla, who plans to reintroduce the bill.

Jacobson acknowledged that the certification process is tough but that it’s designed to make sure children are kept safe and that people aren’t using the system for financial benefits.

She also said the new navigation program is helping prospective foster parents as they wade through the system and that some of the changes sought by lawmakers are being done administratively, such as making placement with a relative a priority.

New Mexico expects to spend more than $31 million in state and federal matching dollars on foster care during the current fiscal year that ends next month. That includes food, clothing and other reimbursements to foster parents, care for children who are in residential treatment centers and childcare costs.

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