Governor Susana Martinez announced today her support of legislation that will close a major loophole that affects child safety, calling for immediate background checks for relatives or close family friends who take in children in an emergency foster placement.
Currently, the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database is not available for this use, but could be with a proposed law change.
"One out of every five children in foster care is placed with relatives or close family friends," Governor Martinez said today while addressing attendees of the Children's Law Institute Conference in Albuquerque. "It is better for a child who has already been victimized to be placed in familiar surroundings with somebody he or she knows. CYFD caseworkers need to have every bit of available information that will help them ensure the safety of a child placed in emergency care."
Currently, background checks, even for emergency placements, take up to three weeks to complete. While the background checks are being completed, CYFD caseworkers have to decide if they want to place children in the relative's home while waiting for the checks, or place the children temporarily in a licensed foster home and then risk disrupting the children weeks later when the background checks are cleared.
In order to fix that dilemma, Governor Martinez is urging the legislature to pass Senate Bill 558, co-sponsored by Senators Sander Rue (R-Albuquerque) and Mary Kay Papen (D-Las Cruces).
The bill, which Governor Martinez will place on the agenda for this year's legislative session, will allow CYFD to conduct a federal criminal history record check on adults residing in a home that has been selected as a possible placement for children during an emergency removal situation. The legislation was developed by CYFD and the Department of Public Safety (DPS).
"This is a fully legitimate use of a law enforcement database, and I think we need to implement this as soon as possible," says Martinez. "Our number one priority is the safety of kids. That's always at the forefront of any work done in a child welfare agency. But close behind that priority is the importance of minimizing the trauma to children when they are placed in state custody."
The bill gives CYFD the ability to work with the New Mexico State Police to quickly run a name-based federal background check on potential relative foster parents for children taken into state custody as a result of abuse or neglect. The check will be done through the FBI's NCIC database. While State Police currently have access to the database, they don't have the authority or ability to share the information with CYFD in a foster placement situation. This change in the Children's Code will help State Police and CYFD with their efforts to never place a child with a known unsafe caretaker.
When CYFD takes a child or a sibling group into state custody, preference is always given to keeping those children with people familiar to them. This often includes aunts and uncles, grandparents, or adult siblings. It can also include non-relatives with whom the child has a significant relationship, like a Godparent or close family friend.
Non-relative foster parents have already been vetted by CYFD, including local, state, and federal background checks done through fingerprints. The process of becoming licensed as a foster parent can take up to six months. However, in an emergency placement with relatives, CYFD caseworkers often have to wait several weeks to complete background checks, while the child or children are already in the home. In the event of a background check that shows a criminal history by an adult in the home, this has resulted in children being moved to a different foster home after the background checks are completed.
The fingerprint background checks can take up to three weeks to complete, while the name-based system can happen within hours.
NCIC background checks are closely regulated, and are not currently available to CYFD caseworkers without the change in the Children's Code that is implemented by SB 558.
CYFD officials say there are examples where not having the background checks have put foster kids in harm's way.
"In June 2007, the Department took two children and placed them with their aunt and uncle. We took fingerprints and initiated the background check immediately, but had to wait weeks for the results," says CYFD Secretary Yolanda Deines. "Our caseworkers were horrified when the results came back. The uncle had been convicted of murder in another state. We can avoid these kinds of dangerous situations for kids with this simple change in the Children's Code, and we thank Governor Martinez for her leadership to make this happen."
"We think this bill is critical," said Senators Rue and Papen, who will introduce the bill when the session begins. "There are two important principles at play here. First, we always want to promote the safety of kids who come into state custody. But the second principle is stability for children. That is just as important, and this legislation helps us accomplish both of these goals. We're glad to have the Governor's support, and have enjoyed working with Chief Shilling and Secretary Deines."
"Since the NCIC database is already available to the state, closing this loophole and allowing State Police and CYFD to work together to conduct background checks that will ensure the safety of New Mexico's children is a simple measure and an important step forward," said Chief Robert Shilling of the New Mexico State Police.
CYFD says on any given day they have anywhere from 1,700 to 2,200 children in foster care.
20.6% of the children in foster care placed with relatives. As of November 2011, the last period for which statistics are available, 353 children were placed with relatives.