NM lawmakers fail to clarify abuse reporting law

February 22, 2014 • State News

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The state’s embattled child welfare agency said Friday it’s concerned about the Legislature’s failure to clarify a law requiring the reporting of suspected child abuse and neglect to authorities.

Without a “crystal clear” law, New Mexico’s children are being put at risk, said Henry Varela, a spokesman for the state Children, Youth and Families Department.

“CYFD will continue to take every opportunity to encourage all citizens of New Mexico, regardless of their profession, to report any concerns of child abuse or neglect,” Varela said Friday.

All the agency can do, for now, is hope people call [auth] its hotline if they suspect a child is being abused or neglected.

Despite a number of recent abuse cases highlighting problems with the state’s overwhelmed child welfare system, several measures stalled during the 30-day legislative session that ended Thursday. Some bills aimed to fix a legal loophole created by a recent court decision that narrowed the list of people who must report suspected cases of abuse and neglect.

In a decision issued in November, the Court of Appeals said only 10 categories of people, including physicians, nurses and teachers, must contact authorities about suspected abuse.

Including everyone on that list is what lawmakers originally intended, said House Minority Whip Nate Gentry, an Albuquerque Republican.

“It’s clearly on the books,” Gentry said. “I think there are some things that are just so important from a public policy perspective, like protecting abused kids. This is one of those instances where you should require people to be good Samaritans.”

Gentry and Rep. Gail Chasey, an Albuquerque Democrat, said they are hopeful the Supreme Court will settle the reporting issue when it reviews the lower court ruling. However, it’s not clear whether that will happen before lawmakers meet again next January.

Several lawmakers whose bills stalled this year said they plan to work over the next several months to find ways to improve the state’s systems for dealing with child abuse and neglect. Chasey said that could include taking alternative approaches that address some of the root causes of abuse, such as poverty, substance abuse and parenting resources.

Other child advocates said staffing shortages at CYFD will have to be addressed before things begin to change.

The agency deals with anywhere between 32,000 and 34,000 reports a year. About half of those end up being screened for investigation.

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