Court Oversight Ends for New Mexico Child Welfare System

Albuquerque, NM — A federal district judge in New Mexico ended court oversight of the state’s child welfare system today, citing reforms achieved under a 25-year class action reform lawsuit, Joseph A. v. Bolson. The lawsuit had been filed in 1980 charging that the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) was doing little to find adoptive homes for abused and neglected children, forcing them to languish in foster care for an average of five years.

The state fought the case vigorously in the courts for years while children continued to suffer. Under new leadership in 2003, CYFD worked with the children’s attorneys to create the new model of a team approach to speed up adoptions and begin to meet requirements of the lawsuit. As a result, the average stay in foster care has dropped dramatically to under three years for 75 percent of foster children, with nearly half staying less than two years before a safe return to their home or being adopted.

Senior U.S. District Court Judge John Edwards Conway signed the order ending court oversight today at federal district court in Albuquerque. Under the terms of the parties’ agreement, the state must continue using the new model to get children adopted more quickly for the next year. All parties to the lawsuit were present for the signing of the order and were then joined by New Mexico Lt. Governor Diane Denish for a press conference at the State Capitol in Santa Fe.

“Abused and neglected children in New Mexico are no longer in limbo,” stated Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of Children’s Rights, the national child advocacy organization that brought the lawsuit with Albuquerque co-counsel Robert Levy of Geer, Wissel & Levy and The Honorable Susan Conway (ret.). “The state finally recognized the wisdom of working with us, not against us, to find loving, permanent families for these children. The new team approach New Mexico is using to speed adoptions could serve as a model across the country for child welfare systems that are warehousing children in foster care and violating their constitutional rights.”

Cabinet Secretary Mary-Dale Bolson became head of CYFD in 2003 and agreed to work closely with Children’s Rights and its co-counsel to create Adoption Resource Teams– an innovative, hands-on approach that pairs outside expert consultants with CYFD staff. Since April 2004, these experts have met with CYFD caseworkers on every case where a child’s permanency goal was adoption, identifying specific barriers to adoption and directing the steps to break down those barriers. CYFD staff then carries out these steps, and the teams meet on each case every 60 days until the child has a permanent home.

“The Adoption Resource Teams show what can be done for children when political will is matched by resources,” said Susan Lambiase, associate director of Children’s Rights and its lead attorney in the Joseph A. case. “This approach is common sense, not rocket science, but what a difference it makes for kids who are yearning for a loving family. In one case of three siblings for whom no home could be found, the team recommended a social worker dig deeper in the files to find relatives who might be interested. She found a maternal aunt who would adopt them but needed a larger home. The team brainstormed and found a way to help the aunt and now the adoption is about to be finalized. That’s success for children.”

The following results are among those that have been achieved since the time the Joseph A. lawsuit was filed in 1980:

  • Establishing the Goal of Adoption.
    1980: 10% of children in state custody did not even have a permanency goal.
    2005: 100% of children in state custody have a permanency goal.
  • Legally Freeing Children for Adoption
    1980: Adoption was the goal for one-third of all children in state custody, but only 40% of those children had been legally freed for adoption.
    2005: For children with a goal of adoption, 73% were legally free for adoption.
  • Reducing Lengths of Stay in Foster Care
    1980: The average length of time in care for children was nearly 5 years.
    2005: Of the children finalized for adoption in 2004, 74.5% had been in care less than 36 months, and 43.4% had been in care less than 24 months.
  • Finalizing Adoptions:
    1995: 141 adoptions were finalized.
    2004: 236 adoptions were finalized.

“We’ve seen solid and steady progress towards improving the lives of children in New Mexico,” stated Robert Levy, co-counsel in Joseph A. “A commitment was made by the leadership and down the line to the social workers to create an Individualized Adoption Plan for each child and do what it takes to get the job done. As the Adoption Resource Team concept began to show success the buy-in followed and we have seen the results with children being adopted more quickly. CYFD deserves to come out from under court oversight at this time. The innovative team approach must continue to make sure children never again suffer and languish in limbo as they did when we first brought this case. We feel this is the end of a case but a new beginning for children and families.”

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