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March 26, 2020; New York Times

It took a lawsuit to force change—and no doubt implementation will be delayed by the pandemic—but a promising change in New Mexico’s foster care system is now under way. And it might well inform other states across the country.

The level of dysfunction that has characterized foster care in New Mexico is illustrated by the case of Diana D., one of the plaintiffs in that lawsuit. Over a two-year period, “Diane D.” had 11 separate placements. These included not only families, but emergency crisis shelters, treatment foster care, residential treatment facilities, and multiple psychiatric hospitals. Other children have been placed for overnight stays in government offices.

These are examples of what is described as “New Mexico’s broken system of child welfare” in a lawsuit filed in September 2018. The lawsuit was brought by 13 foster children and by two nonprofit organizationsDisability Rights New Mexico and Native American Disability Law Center—in that state against the officials responsible for New Mexico’s systems for child welfare and delivery of Medicaid services to eligible children.

A report in the New York Times says that at last there is a commitment to addressing this situation. In a legal settlement, New Mexico has agreed to make sweeping changes and essentially rebuild the system. To some, this could help provide a model for the rest of the country.

Diana’s situation is a good example of the issues at the heart of the matter. She apparently had “severe mental disorders” and was prescribed nine different medications over the two-year period. She was rarely monitored, however, and eventually became “mostly uncommunicative.”

The lawsuit claims that New Mexico’s system was severely understaffed, and both the staff and the caregiver, including foster families, were poorly trained to diagnose, treat, and support foster youths with mental disorders.

Initially, the state contested the charges. But under state governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who began her term in 2019, the state changed its position. Even before the agreement to settle the lawsuit, there was legislative activity that was deemed flawed but largely helpful to children and families in the child welfare system, according to a report in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

What is being proposed now, however, represents a sea change. According to the Times’ report, the new system in New Mexico is described as the country’s first to be organized “around the principle of understanding and addressing the impact of trauma on foster youth.”

The changes are expected to be completed by 2023 but will start now, as youth enter the system. Immediately, children entering foster care will be screened to test their level of trauma and given appropriate treatment. Where the youth are placed will be affected by this assessment, ensuring they have access to the treatment and support they need.

Other elements of the settlement are an agreement that no children will be sent to out-of-state residential or treatment centers anymore, and that priority will be put on long-term placement with family and/or friends, when safe. Specific mention is made that Native American children who enter the system will remain connected to their families, communities, and cultural traditions. Finally, everyone involved in the foster system will be given training to understand is a child has been traumatized.

These are issues that are not unique to New Mexico. NPQ readers may recall that there have been very parallel issues in Texas relating to Native American youths and issues of care due to system overload. What’s more, according to this US Administration for Children and Families report from 2019, of the more than 430,000 children in foster care in this country, 62 percent entered the system because of neglect, 36 percent because of drug abuse by the parents, and 13 percent because of physical abuse. Each of these represents a cause of trauma, so we can only hope that New Mexico’s new model works, and that what is learned is replicated around the country.—Rob Meiksins