New Mexico must overhaul child welfare system

With incredible sadness we read about the latest child maltreatment case involving child prostitution — as it was predictable and preventable (“N.M. expanding teacher training to battle abuse,” May 12). While New Mexicans were again asking, “Why does this keep happening?” as former Children, Youth and Families Department employees were saying, “This doesn’t have to happen again,” we offer three vital observations:

  • The entire CYFD structure is not designed nor funded to provide the data-driven, cross-sector and systemic prevention of child maltreatment. The proposed well-intentioned new changes won’t fix deep structural problems that have plagued CYFD for decades.
  • The CYFD employees we had the honor to collaborate with are some of the most committed and caring people in the state and desperately need data-driven solutions to end an epidemic of child abuse.
  • We know how to move forward with a data-driven and collaborative solution.

This recent news cycle is mortifying, but other stories soon will take priority until the next case of abuse. Equally troubling is that the cases that do get noticed by child welfare are only the tip of the iceberg.

Child maltreatment and trauma impact all of us with high emotional and financial costs. One in 8 children will be substantiated as maltreated before age 18. In addition to the cases child protective services see, many more adverse childhood experiences will never be reported. These include living in households where adults misuse substances, are threatening or violent, have untreated mental health challenges, are abusive and neglectful, are dissolving marriages or are incarcerated.

New Mexico is one of five states with a significantly higher ratio of children with three or more adverse childhood experiences than the national average. The more adverse childhood experiences a person experiences, the higher risks they have of developing chronic diseases, behavioral health issues and addiction; their risks rise in direct proportion to their adverse childhood experiences.

Parents who have experienced childhood trauma are at significantly higher risk of traumatizing their own children, impacting the capacity to succeed in family life, school or work. The financial costs associated with adverse childhood experiences are significant, and include medical and mental health care, child welfare services, law enforcement, workforce and judicial systems services. To address the challenges, New Mexico needs a complete overhaul of the child welfare system with a data-driven, collaborative and technology-infused approach to preventing all adverse childhood experiences.

We have a groundbreaking opportunity to improve the conditions in which all our children are raised, informed by the understanding of the social determinants of health. We can invest in the process of continuous quality improvement within all family service organizations to strengthen the quantity and quality of vital family services shown to empower families including: parent supports, behavioral health care, early childhood programs and mentorship.

We envision a New Mexico that ensures a seamless system of safety and care for families, leading to a decrease in trauma and crime and an increase in family resilience, school achievement and economic vitality; a state where child welfare ensures safety for every child, where families receive the support they need before they pass the turning point that forever damages the lives of children. We have an overflowing child welfare system that deals with the extreme impact of adverse childhood experiences, but we have yet to invest in these upstream approaches in any significant way.

We are talking about a moonshot approach because it’s what is needed and entirely possible with the right visionary, collaborative leadership. New Mexico’s children deserve nothing less.

Katherine Ortega Courtney, Ph.D., and Dominic Cappello are the authors of Anna, Age Eight: The data-driven prevention of childhood trauma and