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New Mexico lawmakers consider slimmer child welfare budgets

December 3, 2020 GMT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s child welfare agencies on Thursday will jockey with other state departments for slim funding as they present their spending requests to state lawmakers to continue funding childcare and child protection efforts.

From emergency internet access and welfare checks to a strained child care system, children and parents have more needs because of the pandemic, while state revenues are down and agencies are being asked to trim their spending by nearly 5% for the next fiscal year that starts in July 2021.

Pandemic restrictions and low pay for workers continue to hamper the opening of child care centers in New Mexico, but most have stayed open during the ups and downs of caseloads due to emergency subsidies and other measures.

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“Throughout the pandemic, (Early Childhood Education and Care Department) has preserved essential services and supported New Mexico’s early childhood system. As a result, these programs and services — and the professionals who run them — will be able to continue serving children and families after the emergency is over,” Cabinet Secretary Elizabeth Groginsky said in a statement ahead of her address.

Legislators also heard from the Children, Youth, and Families Department who celebrated the virtual elimination of child welfare investigation backlogs.

Officials said the Michelle Lujan Grisham administration inherited a 5,000-case backlog of investigations that hadn’t been resolved within 45 days. By the end of November, that’s been reduced to around 200.

While children at the center of the investigations are checked on within hours depending on the severity of the claim, it can take weeks to investigate and substantiate the claims.

In Bernalillo County, the Children, Youth, and Families Department started the year with a 2,400 backlog. Between a pandemic-related drop in neglect reports in March and a normally low drop over the summer, officials in that county chipped away at the backlog, tamping it down to 100 cases.

“We didn’t just hurry to close these cases,” Deputy Director Annamarie Luna told lawmakers. “And what we saw was that the substantiated and unsubstantiated rates did not change. And for these cases, we remained at about 22 to 26% of substantiated cases.”

The department has worked with law enforcement agencies to keep welfare checks high despite the pandemic, with a non-punitive approach to families reported for educational neglect.

They also told lawmakers that visits to children in foster homes have increased dramatically, thanks in part to federal guidelines that allow for remote visits during the pandemic, with the percentage of children checked-in every 30 days increasing from 94%, in March, to 99%, in April.

Grongsky addressed legislators on the Early Childhood Education and Care Department’s efforts to stabilize the childcare industry, which has seen closures, capacity limitations and staffing challenges thanks to the pandemic.

The department oversees childcare and prekindergarten programs. It’s requesting $401 million, a slight decrease from last year. Around a third of the budget is expected to come from federal money.

Groginsky’s remarks came as hundreds of New Mexico child care providers and the vast majority of schools remain closed.

Meanwhile, employees of grocery stores, banks and other businesses continue working in person while trying to figure out how to care for their school-aged children.

Of the 995 child care providers licensed at the beginning of the pandemic, 716 were open as of Nov. 19, according to the Early Childhood Education and Care Department.

December statistics were not immediately available. More childcare centers may have shut down in recent weeks due to a surge in virus cases.

In August, only 627 providers were open, which represented an increase from the earliest spike in the pandemic.

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Since then, the state has nearly doubled the number of emergency permits to allow family, friends, and neighbors to be paid to care for up to four children from low-income households after a background check.

Most households qualify for child care subsidies if they have income of up to 200% of the federal poverty line, or about $52,400 for a family of four.

Officials from both departments said they were confident they could shave 5% from their budgets without compromising services.

Still, legislators expressed concerns about cuts to child welfare services, especially under the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, which was created this year to absorb some responsibilities formerly housed in other departments.

“Is that going to hinder you from succeeding? We want the department to succeed and I understand our financial situation,” said Sen. Clemente Sanchez, of Grants. “I know the directive from the governor wants to reduce budgets by 5%. But this is a new program, a startup program.”

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.