by Russell Contreras, Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE — A state agency tasked with protecting New Mexico children launched a campaign Monday with a new website and meetings around the state aimed at getting more parents involved in fighting child abuse.

Featuring slick commercials starring Albuquerque-born UFC fighter Carlos Condit and images of children from New Mexico’s Hispanic neighborhoods and American Indian reservations, the “Pull Together” campaign seeks to engage parents and create a movement to transform the way residents see child abuse, Children, Youth and Families Department Secretary Monique Jacobson told The Associated Press.

“It’s a call to action to get us all to care about our kids,” Jacobson said. “But we want to do it in a way that’s going to inspire action and inspire actual change.”

The plan includes a new website that will allow parents to chat with each other on parenting tips and make reporting child abuse easier. The website also will have links about job openings at the agency, which until recently struggled with a 25 percent vacancy rate.

Today, around 12 percent of jobs at the Children, Youth and Families Department remain unfilled, state officials said.

In addition, the website hopes to build awareness of agency services like foster care, give tips on low-cost family activities and promote volunteer opportunities.

Jacobson, who helped launch the New Mexico True campaign as state tourism secretary, said the new media blitz isn’t just an effort to rebrand the Children, Youth and Families Department, which faces criticism after a number of high-profile child abuse death cases. Rather, she said it’s an effort to bring people together to tackle child abuse in the state.

Gov. Susana Martinez said she’s excited about the new campaign.

“As governor, I will never stop fighting to improve the lives of our children, and I believe that is something that every New Mexican can get behind,” Martinez said. “That is why it’s so important that we all pull together — as neighbors, family and fellow New Mexicans — to make our state the best place to be a kid.”

According to the advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children, the number of children living in poverty decreased slightly to 30 percent from 2013 to 2014. However, New Mexico still has the highest child poverty rate in the nation — something advocates say contributes to child abuse.

The Children Youth and Families Department in February entered into a $1.2 million contract with Talweg Creative Inc. to “plan, design, develop, write, produce and support advertisement for CYFD,” according to the state’s online Sunshine Portal.

It is the latest lucrative contract the state has awarded the Santa Fe-based agency since it incorporated in the state in 2014. Last April, the New Mexico Tourism Department awarded Talweg a $7 million contact for the New Mexico True marketing campaign.

Veronica Garcia, executive director for New Mexico Voices for Children, said that while she thinks the anti-child abuse campaign is admirable, she’s concerned the state is underfunding child care, home visitation and social workers. Her group has been at odds with Martinez’s position that New Mexico should not tap the land grant permanent fund to finance early childhood education programs.

“It just seems a little bit hard to understand when there are other things” that the state needs to fund to help children, Garcia said of the $1.2 million contract. “We have such huge needs that we have not been able to turn the corner on child well-being.”

Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester and Las Cruces Bishop Oscar Cantu said Monday that state resources should instead be placed toward expanding earlier childhood education and programs fighting poverty.

The new state-funded campaign features slick commercials and a new website to draw residents to revamped Children, Youth and Families Department programs like foster care and parenting tips.

Wester says the campaign underestimates the lack of internet access for people living in poverty.

He also says he questions the state’s intention with the campaign while New Mexico children rank among the nation’s poorest and state lawmakers refused to allow voters to decide on expanding pre-K programs.

Earlier this year, Catholic Health Initiatives St. Joseph’s Children, a Catholic community health organization, launched a parody campaign, “New Mexico Truth” to draw attention to child poverty in New Mexico.

The organization’s CEO, Allen Sanchez, said he was pleased Jacobson was publicly addressing the disparity among children in New Mexico but more than a campaign was needed.

“It’s more like [Gov.] Susana [Martinez] is trying to pull the wool over our eyes than pull us together,” said Sanchez, who also is the executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Instead of putting resources into a campaign with catchy jingles the governor should work to fully fund programs within CYFD.”

For example, Sanchez said the governor and state lawmakers should direct their attention to expand early childhood education.

The Santa Fe New Mexican contributed to this report.

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