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NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission.  All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.  

October 23, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

What’s the right way to look at the numbers in this article on child abuse and neglect in New Mexico (Albuquerque Journal, 10/20/14)? It’s plain that writer Thomas Cole wants us to view them as alarming, but are they? Let’s see.

More New Mexico children are suffering repeated abuse or neglect even after intervention by the state Department of Children, Youth and Families.

In the state fiscal year that ended June 30, slightly more than 11 out of 100 children who were found by CYFD to be maltreated were abused or neglected again within six months.

That was a jump of nearly 50 percent in two years, the highest rate of repeated maltreatment in at least eight years and well above the national standard, according to government statistics.

There were 1,440 substantiated cases of repeated child abuse or neglect within six months in the state fiscal year ended June 30, up 38 percent from 1,044 in the previous fiscal year.

The total number of child abuse and neglect reports has also been on the rise, as well as the total number of all substantiated cases of child maltreatment…

CYFD says there were 35,856 reports of child abuse or neglect in the fiscal year that ended June 30, up 9 percent from the previous fiscal year. It reported 5,546 substantiated cases, up 23 percent.

Disturbing figures, right? Well, I suppose whether we think the apocalypse is at hand or not depends on our point of view. Cole makes his clear when he tell us that repeat abuse or neglect saw a “jump of nearly 50% in two years.” But of course the actual jump was actually just over 37%, a far cry from 50%. Still, almost 19% per year looks like a lot.

But when we get down to the hard numbers, it turns out that there were a bit over 5,500 cases that were substantiated by the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families. And, looking closer we find that those consisted of about 4,000 cases of neglect and 1,500 cases of abuse.

Now, we can all agree that one case of child abuse is one too many and the same holds true of neglect. But these Census Bureau data show that, in 2013, there were about 507,000 children under the age of 18 living in New Mexico. That means each child had about a 1.08% chance of being abused or neglected and about a 0.3% chance of being abused. In short, New Mexico’s children are overwhelmingly safe, at least from their parents and other caregivers. Yes, the numbers of substantiated cases are up, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of children are safe and have nothing to fear from the adults around them.

I know it doesn’t make for lurid headlines, but those are the facts. Here are some more:

Meanwhile, despite recent wage hikes for workers and increased employee recruitment efforts, the Protective Services Division of CYFD still has a large number of job vacancies.

As of the first of this month, 155 of the 925 positions in Protective Services weren’t filled, for a vacancy rate of nearly 17 percent.

Yes, it looks like New Mexico faces the same problems that plague so many other state child welfare agencies like those of Texas, California and Arizona. They don’t have enough caseworkers to handle the caseloads facing them. Or do they? Again, let’s see.

With 770 positions filled and 5,546 substantiated cases last fiscal year, that’s a load of 7.2 cases per person per year. Of course not all of those 770 employees is a caseworker, i.e. someone tasked with one-on-one contact with parents and children, but 7.2 cases for a whole year? If only 10% of those employees are caseworkers, that would still be an easily manageable load for each one. Industry standards call for between 15 and 20 cases per month per caseworker which would make 72 cases a year a breeze. (And if only 10% of those employees are caseworkers, I have to ask what the other 90% are doing.)

The point is one I’ve made before — that far too much time of CPS caseworkers is spent on “cases” that aren’t, well, cases. That is, they’re not substantiated and, if New Mexico is anything like the rest of the country, many of those didn’t need to be reported at all. Recall that the U.S. Administration for Children and Families collects data from child protective agencies from 48 states. Last year’s figures show that there were about 3.2 million reports of suspected abuse or neglect, of which just 686,000 were substantiated. That’s about 79% of complaints that were found to be unnecessary. Worse, over half of those unnecessary reports were of so little note that they didn’t even bear investigating. (I occasionally write about those cases, like that of Keri Ann Roy of Dallas, that are plainly misuses of CPS time and resources, and abuses of governmental power.)

If the New Mexico Protective Services Division could spend less time weeding out some of those 30,000 complaints that didn’t need to be made, caseworkers could pay more attention to cases like that of Omaree Varela whose mother kicked him to death earlier this year. That was after nine separate complaints to child protective caseworkers. His mother is one of the few who plainly needed to have her kids removed from her “care,” but neither the police nor the PSD managed to see the obvious — that Synthia Varela-Casaus was a drug-addicted menace to her children. They overlooked Omaree while attending to some of those 30,000 calls from teachers, nurses, neighbors, police and the like.

New Mexico doesn’t have an understaffed agency, it has a populace that vastly over-reports what they believe to be abuse or neglect. When just 18% of complaints prove to be worth the agency’s time to pursue, we know for certain that the problem isn’t with insufficient resources, but with too many complaints.

That raises the question “How do we lower the number of reports of abuse or neglect without eliminating some that have merit?” It’s a pithy question and one that no politician anywhere will touch with a pole. There’s no political future in telling people they’re too nervous about kids’ well-being. That’s particularly true since the natural course of events in state capitals is for agencies to try to draw ever larger budgets to themselves. So neither elected officials nor bureaucrats in the agencies who know the score will ever be inclined to state what I just did — that the major problem is over-reporting.

But let’s not forget; over-reporting doesn’t make kids safer, it makes them less so. Omaree Varela is a perfect example. If he’d had a caseworker who knew his mother and home situation well, it’s almost certain that he’d have been in foster care or possibly with his father and likely beyond harm. But, although he’d been the subject of numerous reports, no one with the power to take action got the message that here was a kid in peril. Again, much of that problem lies not with an understaffed agency but with one that’s expected to process countless reports that never needed to be made.

How do we ask people to not report what they fear may be endangering children? It’s not easy, but we need to start with mandated reporters. Those people like teachers, doctors, nurses, police, etc. whose jobs literally depend on their reporting anything and everything that might possibly qualify as abuse are prime sources of over-reporting. Does a child have a bruise? Report his/her parents to CPS. It doesn’t matter that every child has bumps, bruises, cuts and scrapes at times. Those mandated reporters aren’t about to jeopardize their careers and earnings, so they tend to report matters of the slightest concern. We need to train those people to do a bit of triage before picking up the phone and we need to make failure to report less of a threat to their livelihoods.

Meanwhile, one good thing seems to be happening in New Mexico.

The Legislative Finance Committee in April issued a report saying money now being spent by the state on foster care and adoption services might be better spent on early intervention programs that have been proven to prevent repeated child abuse or neglect.

Only five out of every 1,000 children in the state’s child protection system receive preventative services, like in-home visits from nurses and therapists, compared to a national average of 43 children per 1,000, according to the report.

Yes, if kids and parents received services instead of simply the threat of foster care, the state would save money in the long run and protect its kids better. A lot of those neglectful parents are just poor. They don’t know what’s available to them to help care for their kids, when, for example, they’re at work and can’t pay for daycare.

So yes, by all means divert money from foster care and adoption to services that can benefit parents and children. But more importantly, find a way to ensure that, if a report of abuse or neglect is made to the agency, there’s a reasonable chance that there’s a reason for it.

#childabuse, #childneglect, #NewMexico, #over-reporting, #OmareeVarela

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