To fill empty social work positions, CYFD secretary requests a bigger budget

By: - December 15, 2022 4:12 am
Barbara Vigil, CYFD secretary

Barbara Vigil, CYFD Secretary (Photo Courtesy NM CYFD)

The state’s child welfare department is in need of more social workers to ease caseloads, reduce burnout and better help kids in a state with some of the worst outcomes for children, the department secretary told lawmakers Wednesday. 

The New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department has 509 vacancies across six offices, according to a presentation from Secretary Barbara Vigil to the interim Legislative Finance Committee. Of them, 443 are in the department’s Juvenile Justice Services and Protective Services divisions. 

The Protective Services Division is the agency’s biggest, and is tasked with investigating reports of abuse or neglect, and to take action to prevent additional harm. The division is short 211 employees, primarily social and case workers. 

Vigil referenced a workforce plan the agency is finalizing, one that she said would help retain workers, reduce turnover and bring in new hires. The plan calls for boosted wages for existing employees, better recruitment and establishing a social worker pipeline with the help of universities. 

“They’re our greatest asset,” Vigil said of CYFD employees. “We cannot do this work. We will continue to struggle unless we build a workforce that is safe, that is supported, that is trained and compensated at a level that we can keep them.”

The platinum standard of the Indian Child Welfare Act

CYFD is asking the Legislature to approve an 11.8% budget increase, from more than $346 million to more than $386 million. That includes $27 million more for the Protective Services Division.

Some of the money would go toward raises, Vigil said, to help retain current employees and also make pay across the agency more equitable. Long-time employees hired at lower initial salaries are earning less than new employees, she said. 

The agency would also give 10% raises to staff with a one-time boost in funding, officials said, along with additional pay increases for work experience and education. 

Job postings on the CYFD website show the agency is hiring intake workers, placement case workers and investigative workers with starting base salaries less than $20 an hour for those without much education or work-related experience. 

And pay is low for those with college degrees: $22 to $24 an hour for those with a master’s degree in social work, according to Emily Martin, director of the Protective Services Division. 

A report in March from KOAT-TV found that the state’s CYFD caseworkers have a caseload double the national average. Caseworkers here, on average, each investigate 124 cases a year. 

The CYFD hiring plan aims to reduce caseloads to the national average within three years, according to Vigil’s presentation. 

Rep. Patti Lundstron (D-Gallup), chair of the Legislative Finance Committee, said $22 is too low, given the difficult job. 

“This is not a good salary level for what these people are responsible for. At all,” she said. “I’m surprised that the vacancy rate is only what it was … Particularly when I see them as being with the child as the centerpiece of your system of care.”

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Patrick Lohmann
Patrick Lohmann

Patrick Lohmann has been a reporter since 2007, when he wrote stories for $15 apiece at a now-defunct tabloid in Gallup, his hometown. Since then, he's worked at UNM's Daily Lobo, the Albuquerque Journal and the Syracuse Post-Standard.