Thirty years ago, a nonprofit report on the well-being of New Mexico’s children painted a disturbingly bleak portrait of the lives of our youngest residents.
The Coalition for Children’s “Kids in Crisis: New Mexico’s Other Bomb,” released in 1987, was a compendium of doom: Twenty percent of young children in New Mexico lived in poverty; fully half of Native American children did so. More than 40 percent of students in third, fifth and eighth grades scored below average on standardized tests. Twenty-five percent dropped out of high school without graduating. New Mexico had the seventh-highest teen birth rate in the nation and the highest rate of infant mortality.
The report included an impassioned essay by one of New Mexico’s most renowned public figures, the author Rudolfo Anaya, whose New Mexico coming-of-age story “Bless Me, Ultima” was on its way to becoming the best-selling Chicano novel of all time.
“If we do not save the children,” he warned, “we do not save the future.”
The report received a good deal of media attention – on TV, radio and in print.
People were surprised, disheartened, even outraged.
It seemed like a turning point.
Yet in the three decades that have elapsed, the crisis has, in many ways, grown more dire, according to an in-depth, months-long assessment conducted by Searchlight New Mexico, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization.
Of our nearly 500,000 children, 29 percent live in poverty, the highest rate in the nation.
Thirty-three percent of New Mexican students drop out of high school – the worst graduation rate in the country.
The number of children living with a single parent has climbed from 23 percent in 1990 to 41 percent today. The state’s prison population has tripled between 1986 and 2015 and 10 percent of New Mexico kids now have a parent who has done time.
Meanwhile, many of the “Kids in Crisis” from 1987 have become parents themselves now. Some are even grandparents. Every year, some 20,000 to 25,000 New Mexico babies are born in a state where the odds are stacked against them – setting many up for a repeat of their parents’ lives.
Child well-being, after all, isn’t about numbers and rankings. It’s about the lives of children.
One child, two childhoods
Francesca Duran turns 2 in 1987 in a one-bedroom house on the wrong side of Clovis.
Her mother, Olivia, grew up with 11 siblings in a small shack near the railroad tracks. It wasn’t much more than a chicken coop, but her father had turned it into a home by installing windows and partitioning off rooms. Olivia’s mother made the curtains on her Singer sewing machine.
Little Francesca is nicknamed Frankie, and by the time she comes along Olivia has two older girls, Tammy, who is 8, and Felicia, who’s 2.
The house payments are $155 a month and welfare helps; the family receives $300 a month from the federal government. But even with the money Frankie’s father earns by installing carpets, every month is a struggle.
Both of Frankie’s parents are alcoholics. She remembers two childhoods, one sober and loving and one drunk and violent.
Sober: The girls are in the tub getting soaped up, and her mother is smiling and singing The Delfonics. “La la la la la la la la la means I love you,” she croons.
Drunk: Frankie isn’t sure what she’s done, but she’s getting yelled at and smacked.
“She’d whip my ass and whip my ass,” she says today. “Everything my mom wasn’t supposed to say or do, when she was drunk, she did it.”
When she turns 3, Frankie goes to Head Start, the federally funded preschool for economically disadvantaged children, where she will learn her ABCs and catch up to the other kids. On the playground, she sees a boy on the swing set. It looks like fun.
Frankie heads into the play area, picks up a plastic toy and goes back outside. She walks up behind the other child and clocks him in the head.
The boy falls.
“And I got on the swing and started swinging.”
The school calls Frankie’s father. He swears at the teachers. And that is the end of Frankie’s preschool education.
“I didn’t know better,” she says now. “No one had ever taught me to talk, to ask. All I knew is when you want something, you use violence.”
In 1992, the first New Mexico Kids Count report was published. “It’s About Time Kids Count in New Mexico” was released at an evening banquet attended by policymakers, scions of the business community and politicians including then-Gov. Bruce King and his wife, Alice King, a champion of children’s programs.
The purpose of the report, which documented New Mexico’s place in national rankings of health, social and economic measures, was to call attention once again to the status of children and spur public policy toward change.
To hammer home the plight of the smallest and neediest, the dinner’s organizers used a gimmick: Diners were offered a choice of two meals – roast sirloin with all the trimmings or a “reality meal” of vegetable soup and a bean-and-cheese burrito. Just like the New Mexico kids who lived in poverty, one in four dignitaries was asked to choose the more meager option.
Only five years had passed since the “Kids in Crisis” report, but the latest statistics, compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an East Coast philanthropy established by United Parcel Service founder James E. Casey, painted an even grimmer picture of New Mexico’s children. The state still trailed much of the nation – 44th overall – and lagged even farther behind in some categories.
In the measure of children in poverty, for example, New Mexico had moved from fifth to third worst in the nation; 28 percent of its kids now lived in poverty. The percentage of children living with a single parent had jumped from 9 percent to 23 percent. Instances of abuse and child neglect had increased. So, too, had the birth rate among teens.
Frankie remembers her parents’ last fight.
They are locked in a struggle on the front porch and her father has her mom by the hair. “My mom just reached up and got a coffee cup, broke it and cut his face.”
After they’re sober and have cleaned up the blood, they realize the harm they are inflicting on their daughters. “The kids can’t see this,” her father decides. So he moves to Texas.
Single parenting brings more stress to the little house. Frankie’s mom is frequently drunk, but there are plenty of uncles and cousins around to watch over the three girls.
One special uncle, who was sent away to the juvenile justice system when he was 9 — and who will go on to spend much of his life in prison — urges her to stay on guard.
Always be on the lookout for danger, he tells her. Protect yourself at any cost.
She takes the lesson to heart. In kindergarten, when the kids are sitting cross-legged on the carpet, the boy next to her wets himself and some urine trickles onto her. She gets up and pummels him.
“I didn’t have no words,” she says. “I always hit everybody. I was angry. I was small but I was strong. That’s all I knew was just to hit.”
Frankie fights her way through the elementary grades in Clovis. Her mother, who is working as a housekeeper, grows tired of getting called to school whenever her youngest daughter gets in trouble. It costs gas and interrupts her day. So she gives the principal permission to use corporal punishment.
Frankie gets sent to the principal’s office and takes smacks to her behind from a wooden paddle. “Then I would get home,” she says, “and my mom would f— me up again. No one ever asked me what was wrong. All they did was f—ing hit me.”
When she is in sixth grade, a second-grader is mean to her cousin. Frankie picks the younger child up and throws him onto the concrete. She is kicked out for the rest of the school year.
Every year since its first Kids Count report, Annie E. Casey has released rankings of all 50 states. The measurements on which they’re based have become the gold standard for gauging American childhood. Compiled in easy-to-read charts and tables, the report amounts to a series of snapshots of the lives of children – a family album of poverty, health care, child safety and educational achievement for every state in the nation.
New Mexico’s family album isn’t a pleasant one.
With the exceptions of 1995 (when New Mexico’s rank of child well-being rose to 40th) and 2009 (when it was 43rd), the state has lingered at the bottom of the list. For the past six years, New Mexico has traded the 49th and 50th spots with Mississippi.
There have been successes. Most notably, more children have health insurance and the infant mortality rate has dropped. According to the 2017 report, the state actually made advances in 14 of 16 categories, but still ranked No. 49 because other states made even greater strides.
Near worst in the nation. It’s not what Ona Porter expected when she spearheaded that 1987 report, “Kids in Crisis: New Mexico’s Other Bomb.” Porter sits in the high-ceilinged Albuquerque office of Prosperity Works, a nonprofit that pursues the same work she began 30 years ago: improving the lives of New Mexicans through building economic assets.
She is still trying to chip away at a problem she naively thought wouldn’t be that hard to fix when she first set her sights on it.
“I just can’t imagine that anybody thinks it’s OK that these little kids are unfed, uncared for – not because of malice, but because their parents simply can’t,” she says.
Porter faults the failure of systems, laws and budgets.
She also faults the failure of will.
Numbers and realities
It’s the summer before eighth grade, and Frankie is wearing her baggy Dickies and white Nike Cortez sneakers. Like the other girls she hangs with, she wears her black hair long and curled.
There has been a fight and a family member has gotten beaten up by a group of girls.
So, using the only problem-solving skills they know, Frankie’s crew makes a plan.
They’ll beat the girl up, then brag about it when school starts in a few days.
But when they find the girl in a vacant house, it doesn’t happen that way.
When it’s over, a 13-year-old is dead from stab wounds and Frankie and the other girls are in juvenile detention – one charged with murder and Frankie and the others charged with lesser felonies in connection with the crime.
“Never went with the intent to kill anybody. I never knew that was going to happen,” she says. “And unfortunately that little girl, she lost her life that day. Every day we live with that.”
Frankie doesn’t want to plead guilty. As her case crawls toward trial she sits in the Curry County Juvenile Detention Center for three years – through eighth, ninth and 10th grades.
When a judge lets Frankie, now 16, out on house arrest, she gets pregnant, a violation of the terms of her release.
With a baby on the way, she pleads guilty to aggravated battery charges and is sent to Albuquerque’s Youth Diagnostic and Detention Center to serve her two-year sentence.
There, just shy of 17, she gives birth to a boy she names Joedamien.
That’s when Frankie’s life begins to change.
The annual rankings of child well-being have been used to spur social and political change. The Kids Count reports have helped educate lawmakers and policymakers on the importance of early childhood interventions, spurring investments in pre-kindergarten programs for low-income children and home visiting programs for pregnant women and new mothers and babies.
Many of the programs of which New Mexico is proudest — the K-3 Plus program that extends the school year for low-income students, the Family Infant Toddler Program that provides early intervention services for children at risk of developmental delays – owe their fiscal beginnings to the harsh reality of the annual rankings.
The shame of those rankings has led to funding for child care assistance for working families. It has helped put dropout coaches and social workers in middle and high schools. It’s inspired programs to help addicted women throughout pregnancy.
But the rankings have also been used as cudgels by those arguing against such interventions. According to that argument, it’s obvious that governments can’t raise children and parents need to step up and do their jobs.
The rankings have even become symbols of our state’s cultural quicksand and seemingly hopeless future – spawning the cynical alternative state motto: “Thank God for Mississippi.”
In some quarters, they provoke a quieter, deeper response.
“Have we made a difference in 30 years?” James Jimenez asked that question on the 30th anniversary of the founding of New Mexico Voices For Children. As the group’s executive director, he was grappling with how an agency formed to advocate for the state’s children should “celebrate” when the state is ranked near last in the nation in child well-being.
“A lot of our pain is self-inflicted,” Jimenez says. “We can’t control oil prices. But we can control what our tax structure looks like. We can leave more money in the hands of poor folks. We can raise the minimum wage. We can invest in early care and education programs. There’s lot of things that we can do if there is the political will to do them.”
By the time Joedamien comes into the world, his grandmother is sober and married to a retired Air Force master sergeant. They buy a house in Albuquerque so they can be close to Frankie and take care of the boy.
Frankie has enough credits to graduate early from high school, and she begins to work with a parenting program that, slowly, helps her make some sense out of her past.
“My grandparents were good, loving people,” she says. “My parents were good, loving people. They were parenting the only way they knew how, which was to hit. They didn’t know about trauma and what it does to you. Nobody talked about your feelings.”
When Frankie graduates and has served her time, she gets a job at Kmart and starts taking college classes. Three years later, she is hired by PB&J Family Services, the social service agency that helped teach her parenting skills when she was still incarcerated. With an associate’s degree in early childhood education, she begins working as a teacher’s assistant in the PB&J preschool.
Frankie is now 33. Joedamien is 15. Her son Enrique is 9; her twins, Adam and Dyna, are nearly 1. She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in social work and owns a house in Albuquerque. She is finally in therapy and beginning to understand the effects of intergenerational trauma on her family and herself.
“Psychosocial development in infancy. The effects of trauma on brain development. Why didn’t nobody tell my mom?” Her voice gets louder. “Why am I finding out about this now?”
Her face shifts from anger and she starts to cry.
“Why am I just learning this now?” she says. “I’m 33 years old.”