by Phaedra Haywood, Santa Fe New Mexican
December 29, 2016

The number of Northern New Mexico residents seeking custody of abused and neglected children born to relatives had been growing steadily over the past decade, but that growth has skyrocketed in the last two years.

People who work in the state’s family courts system say substance abuse — primarily opiate addiction — is to blame for the more than 70 percent increase in kinship guardianship cases between 2014 and 2016. Unless the epidemic is addressed, they say, generations of the region’s children will continue to suffer.

Stephen Stone, director of Family Court Services for the First Judicial District, which includes Santa Fe, Rio Arriba and Los Alamos counties, estimates that about 90 percent of the applications for relatives seeking custody of a child are tied to substance abuse by one or both parents.

“Everyone who is working with families seems to understand this is a big problem in our district and in our state,” Stone said. “It has the potential to change the fabric of our community.”

The First Judicial District has seen a similar rise in the number of children in foster care, leading to more aggressive efforts to recruit and train new foster parents in the area. State child welfare officials also say the substance abuse epidemic is driving the problem.

People who take custody of grandchildren or other young relatives can participate in the state’s foster care program, but many choose the guardianship route instead. Unlike foster parents, these family members don’t receive assistance from the state to care for the children in their custody. Advocates have been pushing for more services and financial help for the growing number of kinship guardians in New Mexico, especially grandparents who are raising grandchildren, and those efforts are slowly progressing.

According to the child advocacy group New Mexico Voices for Children, about 6 percent of the state’s children are cared for primarily by grandparents, compared to about 4 percent nationwide. In Rio Arriba County, the number is 10 percent, and in Santa Fe County, 5 percent. Los Alamos County has only a few cases.

“It’s directly tied to heroin,” said Roy Stephenson, a former Children’s Court attorney who recently came out of retirement to work as a guardian ad litem, making recommendations to judges about the best interests of children in the care of grandparents or other relatives.

“The degree of substance abuse, particularly in the Española Valley, just keeps escalating,” he said. “… I think poverty is also a major contributor to family cases.”

According to data provided by the First Judicial District Court, there were 58 kinship guardianship petitions in the district in 2008. By 2014, that number had grown to 95, and in 2015 it spiked to 155. In 2016, 162 cases were filed.

The majority of the petitions are filed by grandparents seeking legal guardianship of their children’s children so they can enroll them in school, take them to the doctor and prevent the biological parents from periodically trying to reclaim children they aren’t fit to raise.

In some cases, the state Children, Youth and Families Department has removed a child from the parents’ home because of abuse or neglect, and in other cases, relatives are seeking to validate informal family arrangements already in place.

“If the grandparents don’t have guardianship, the parents can just come back and take them back,” said Elizabeth McGrath, executive director of Pegasus Legal Services for Children, an Albuquerque nonprofit that provides free civil legal services for children. “The back and forth is confusing for kids.”

McGrath has been a children’s legal advocate since the 1990s and helped pass legislation that created kinship guardianship as an option in the state in 2001.

“It’s just been snowballing since then,” she said. “I’ve never seen a decrease in the number of grandparents needing to get guardianship.”

“Generally, it’s a positive thing when kids can be cared for by their relatives instead of going into foster care,” McGrath said. But it’s never good when children’s parents aren’t able to care for them. And it can be difficult for family members to take on relatives’ children without financial aid or other assistance from the state, she said.

In some circumstances, McGrath said, kinship guardians can get federal aid, through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, as well as child care assistance.

“But they don’t get case management to guide them to access the services they need,” she said. “A lot of these people have never applied for cash assistance before. They’ve never applied for food stamps, etc. And income support workers aren’t trained on the needs of grandparents raising grandchildren.”

The situation can become stressful, McGrath said, especially for aging grandparents. “They didn’t expect to be parenting a 2-year-old in their 50s, and the parents are often a problem, as well.”

Las Cumbres Community Services has attempted to step into the void by starting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren programs in Taos, Española and Santa Fe. The organization hosts monthly support groups in which grandparents can talk with others about their situation and get information about parenting challenges.

Delifina Romero, who coordinates the Española group, says participation in the program has grown since its inception five years ago. “When we first started, we probably had like eight to 12 families,” she said. “The last few months, we’ve had more than 25 grandparents coming.”

New Mexico legislators passed a memorial in 2015 that created a task force to examine issues facing grandparents raising their grandchildren. In November, the group released a list of recommendations, including appropriating more money for support services, such as parenting training.

The group also is asking that $200,000 be allocated for the creation of a statewide network of services to support grandparents raising grandchildren.

Children, Youth and Families Department spokesman Henry Varela said there is one bright spot on the horizon — a new program that will provide a stipend to family members who opt to take guardianship after a child has been taken into state custody.

Advocates say providing behavioral health support to these fractured families — another task force recommendation — also is essential to ending what has become a vicious cycle.

When the state removes a child from a home where there is abuse or neglect, the biological parents typically are given a case manager and a treatment plan to help them address problems such as substance abuse. Critical mental health services also are available for children in foster care. In kinship cases, none of that happens.

“If they don’t get the services they need in adolescence,” McGrath said, “the kids often end up duplicating their own parents’ pattern of substance abuse, and abuse and neglect of their children.”

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