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New Mexico child welfare secretary reflects on tenure

December 30, 2018
In this Dec. 6, 2018, photo, Monique Jacobson, outgoing secretary of the state Children, Youth and Families Department, speaks during an interview at the Youth Diagnostic and Development Center in Albuquerque, N.M. The development center, a locked and secure facility in Albuquerque for incarcerated youths, is one of Jacobson's favorite places to visit. In terms of adult intervention in the lives of troubled kids, the outgoing cabinet secretary says this is where the rubber meets the road. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The Youth Diagnostic and Development Center, a locked and secure facility for incarcerated youths, is one of Monique Jacobson’s favorite places to visit.

“This is truly the heart of the deep end of the work that we do,” says the outgoing cabinet secretary for the state Children, Youth and Families Department.

In terms of adult intervention in the lives of troubled kids, this is where the rubber meets the road.

“In order for these kids to be here with us (at YDDC), they would have had to commit some pretty serious crimes. The way I look at it is we have an opportunity to reverse that trajectory and break the cycle - because if we don’t, they will be the next generation of parents who are involved with us.”

Jacobson, 40, will wrap up her tenure next week. She’s reflecting on her last four years at CYFD.

She recalls how she came into the office surrounded by questions and criticisms concerning her qualifications, having previously been the cabinet secretary of the Tourism Department, where she was best-known for starting the New Mexico True campaign.

Then-Senate Democratic Whip Michael Padilla of Albuquerque called Jacobson’s appointment a “shocker” and questioned her relevant work experience.

But Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, came to her defense and said at that time, “management skills are first and foremost” what was needed at CYFD.

Jacobson won Senate confirmation with a 35-2 vote.

Padilla said his first impression has not changed.

“Monique Jacobson is a true professional in the areas in which she was trained - marketing and tourism. I believe she did her best as CYFD secretary under very difficult circumstances, but it demonstrates that the department needs a skilled individual with relevant experience,” he said.

Smith, meanwhile, praised Jacobson, saying she has “most certainly lived up to the expectations.”

“I believe it’s one of the toughest jobs in state government.” Jacobson, he added, “moved quickly, was very decisive as a manager and the morale in the field offices is now very good.”

After graduating from the prestigious Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania, Jacobson worked for PepsiCo in Chicago.

“My background was much more in management than it ever got portrayed,” she says, “and a lot of the skills that I had from my time at PepsiCo and again at the Tourism Department were important for running a large, diverse and troubled agency like CYFD.”

And diverse it is. The department has 34 offices and facilities around the state and about 2,200 employees working in one of four divisions: Protective Services, Behavioral Health, Juvenile Justice and Early Childhood Services.

Jacobson readily shares some of the improvements each of those divisions enjoyed during her tenure.

In Protective Services, the number of foster homes increased by 24 percent, the number of field workers increased by 30 percent and the vacancy rate of field workers fell from 24 percent to 12 percent.

CYFD rolled out its Law Enforcement Portal and trained more than 400 officers, who now have access to information about previous CYFD referrals and contacts with children and families. It also added 24 community behavioral health clinicians to improve placement and treatment options for Protective Services youths.

In Juvenile Justice, the number of kids getting their GEDs or diplomas rose from 15.6 percent to 47.2 percent, and vocational education programs have been introduced in the newly opened Vocational Education Building on the YDDC campus.

In Early Childhood Services, participation in child care assistance increased by 4,500 a month, funding for pre-K increased by 55 percent, and funding for home visiting rose by 79 percent.

In Behavioral Health Services, the number of mental health teams was doubled.

Overall, under Jacobson’s tenure CYFD’s budget increased by $79 million, to more than $500 million.

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‘No silver bullet’

Like every CYFD secretary before her, Jacobson has had to deal with tragedies, particularly high-profile cases in which children were exploited, abused, even killed.

Those children included Victoria Martens, a 10-year-old who was raped, killed and dismembered, and a 7-year-old girl who was allegedly prostituted by family members.

Earlier this year, a lawsuit was filed against CYFD by a group of New Mexico child advocates and their attorneys, on behalf of abused or neglected children in state custody. The suit contends that children in New Mexico are regularly removed from unsafe homes only to end up in a “broken” foster care system.

“There’s no one common denominator connecting the incidents, and there’s no one silver bullet solution,” Jacobson says.

In the case of the 7-year-old girl, investigators with the state Attorney General’s Office found that CYFD and law enforcement had multiple reports about the family involving neglect and abuse dating back years. Yet the girl and her siblings were not removed from the family until last April, after the Attorney General’s Office became involved.

Eleven CYFD employees were suspended, demoted or fired.

Jacobson says one of her goals at CYFD was to “create a culture of accountability and support” within the department.

“I see (CYFD) offices where they’re really good at support but not good at accountability, and what happens is a culture of complacency sets in, and then children can end up hurt or dead,” she says. “The flip side is an office that’s really good at accountability but not support, and you end up with a culture of fear. That’s not a productive culture for our workers and not a culture that will create safety for our children. So we have to continually balance those two worlds.”

Complicating things is the frequency with which people try to use the agency “as a weapon,” she says. Protective Service’s Central Intake yearly receives about 40,000 reports of abuse or neglect from all around the state. Of those, 20,000 are referred for CYFD investigation.

While it’s important for people to report suspected neglect or abuse of a child, field workers often find that calls to CYFD originate with angry neighbors, relatives or ex-spouses who have an ax to grind, impeding the ability to substantiate reports.

Jacobson says one of her disappointments has been her inability to persuade the Legislature to increase penalties for people who abuse children and cause death. Under current law, individuals found guilty of abuse resulting in the death of a child ages 11 or younger face a life sentence, while those convicted of the same crime against a child ages 12 to 18 face up to 18 years in prison.

“I would go year after year and fight for change, and year after year I was told we don’t need that law,” she says.

Moments after being told that in a committee hearing, she got the first email about Jeremiah Valencia.

The 13-year-old boy from Nambé was tortured to death, allegedly at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend and the boyfriend’s son. His body was found in a plastic storage bin in January.

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‘Strong support’

Jacobson grew up in Taos and Santa Fe. She lives in Albuquerque, where she and her husband, Andrew Jacobson, are raising their three children, ages 13, 11 and 6.

She calls her time at CYFD “the best and most meaningful job of my life” and says she plans to start a nonprofit “focused on how to have an impact on improving the quality of life for our children.”

At the heart of every issue is “the desire for human connection,” Jacobson says. “That’s the single most important thing I’ve learned. So when you’re disrupting the human connection between a parent and a child, you’d better make sure there’s strong support in place so that you’re finding a human connection for those children - not just a warm bed, not just food, but human connection. That’s essential.”

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Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com

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