Heath Haussamen/New Mexico In Depth
More than 1,000 additional New Mexico children could receive government-funded child-care assistance if their parents or guardians ask for it.
The state’s Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) is clearing a waiting list of 1,119 children, saying it now has the funds available to offer assistance for childcare.
Agency spokesman Henry Varela confirmed the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez is paying for the extra child-care assistance using $400,000 from millions of dollars in unspent federal funds.
The move, a temporary fix, comes as the Martinez administration says it is working to improve the quality of child care in New Mexico and beef up resources to investigate child abuse and neglect cases.
But some activists and lawmakers, including Sen. Howie Morales, a Silver City Democrat, think CYFD should use available federal money to permanently increase spending on child-care assistance, eliminating the need for future waiting lists.
The agency’s clearing of the waiting list also follows New Mexico In Depth and the Las Cruces Sun-News reporting in December that child-care assistance could help combat fatal child abuse, which is a perennial problem in the state. For four of the past five years, New Mexico has been among the eight states with the highest number of per-capita child abuse and neglect deaths.
Experts say there is no cure-all for addressing the complex factors that lead to fatal child abuse. But making quality child care more affordable would give families better options than leaving children with unreliable caregivers, they say.
Letters to the families of the 1,119 children on the waiting list went out Feb. 13 offering the government assistance with child care, Varela said. The families can apply for the assistance through March 31.
Since 2011, the administration has periodically used funds to clear the waiting list. The last time was in September 2013, according to Varela.
Debate over expanding assistance
For years CYFD has offered child-care assistance to families making up to 150 percent of the federal poverty level, or around $36,375 for a family of four. It has the option to make it available to families earning up to 199 percent of that threshold – around $48,250 for the same family. In recent years, the agency has created a waiting list for families earning between 151 percent and 199 percent of the federal poverty level.
With the agency’s newest action, families making up to nearly double the poverty rate – $48,250 for that family of four – can apply for child-care assistance through March 31, Varela said. After that deadline, only those families earning 150 percent or less will receive assistance. A new waiting list will be created for those making more than 150 percent but less than 200 percent.
Morales said Saturday he’s disappointed that CYFD wouldn’t keep offering child-care assistance to families making up to 200 percent of the poverty level after March 31. He wants the state to offer assistance at that level and raise the threshold even higher if money is available.
“The need is there and fortunately the funds are there too,” Morales said in an interview.
In addition to the $400,000 to eliminate the waiting list, CYFD has been moving around unspent money to focus on increasing the quality of child-care by paying more to those businesses, nonprofits and individuals that provide it; implementing a child-care ranking and accountability system; and developing a pilot program to expand child-care assistance for families at risk of abuse and neglect.
The money for those priorities came from federal grants that had gone unspent and because of an 8.6 percent drop in the number of families utilizing child-care assistance. The drop is part of a national trend but also due in part to the state implementing a requirement in 2012 that single parents seeking child-care assistance first apply for child support, officials say.
Varela said CYFD is trying to spend surplus money wisely. It’s also leaving millions unspent for now in case it’s needed in the future.
“We want to look at this responsibly, so that wherever you put it it’s sustainable,” Varela said, adding that CYFD doesn’t want to have to take child-care assistance away from families later.
The state’s child abuse problem
CYFD isn’t asking state lawmakers during the current legislative session for extra money to expand child-care assistance to all families making less than 200 percent of the poverty level, Varela said. The agency has focused instead on seeking millions of new dollars for investigating child abuse and neglect claims.
Veronica C. Garcia, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy organization New Mexico Voices for Children, expressed concern about the administration asking for money to investigate abuse while leaving unspent money that could expand child-care assistance and prevent such abuse.
“Child abuse is absolutely preventable. We know that the lack of affordable child care is a major risk factor for child abuse, yet we have been failing to spend money that was appropriated for that purpose. It’s no wonder that our beautiful state ranks at the bottom for child well-being,” Garcia said.
New Mexico has consistently had one of the highest rates of fatal child abuse and neglect in the country in recent years. In 2010 and 2008, New Mexico had the second and third highest rate of child-abuse deaths in the country, respectively, with 19 children dying from abuse and neglect in each of those years.
The state is also at the bottom of the pack in child well-being, ranking 49th or 50th on a national Kids Count study the past three years.
Many states with consistently low rates of fatal child abuse and neglect and positive rankings in child well-being offer at least some child-care assistance to families earning double the poverty level.
The debate in New Mexico is over how consistently the state should fund child-care assistance at double the poverty rate – constantly, as some like Morales want, or periodically through the waiting-list system the administration is using.
New Hampshire offers child-care assistance for families making up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level. That state ranked fourth in child well-being last year and had a fatal child abuse rate of 0.36 deaths per 1,000 children in 2012. New Mexico’s rate was nearly 10 times higher: 3.11 deaths per 1,000 children.
North Dakota, which also ranks low in fatal child abuse and high in child well-being, offers assistance for families making up to nearly three times the federal poverty level.