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Mothers sue over New Mexico’s child care assistance program

September 26, 2018
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Annette Torres, a single mother, talks about her struggles paying for child care during a news conference in Albuquerque, N.M., on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. Torres is among a group of plaintiffs suing the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department over what they say are illegal regulations that have resulted in low-income families being denied child care assistance. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico is being sued by single mothers and an advocacy group who claim the state’s child welfare agency is using vague regulations to deny child care assistance to thousands of low-income families.

The complaint , filed late Tuesday in state district court, comes as New Mexico is struggling with some of the nation’s highest poverty and unemployment rates. Lawmakers, state officials and others have pointed to quality child care and other aid programs as ways to help families get ahead.

The plaintiffs contend the Children, Youth and Families Department is illegally denying child care assistance to families with incomes over 150 percent of the federal poverty level, which amounts to a yearly income of $31,170 for a family of three.

They argue that parents with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty level are eligible to receive the help.

The agency also is accused of not informing families of their right to appeal decisions denying aid.

Monica Ault, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said her clients are frustrated with how the agency has administered the program.

“We know as New Mexicans that child care is a basic necessity for any family that would like to work or to go to school,” Ault said during a news conference.

Yet many families are forced to choose between paying rent, buying groceries and diapers, and paying for child care, she said.

The Children, Youth and Families Department called the allegations in the lawsuit preposterous.

The agency has been working to expand the program for vulnerable populations and monthly participation has increased by about 4,500 children over the last three years, said spokesman Henry Varela.

Funding for the program also has increased by more than 60 percent since 2015, he said.

The agency also disputes claims that families are not informed of their right to appeal when assistance is denied, saying letters given to the families state they can seek a hearing and review their case documents.

In July, the agency unveiled a new app to help families apply online for the assistance program, with the goal of making the process easier and faster.

Cabinet Secretary Monique Jacobson has described the child care assistance program as one of the greatest tools in the fight to improve the quality of life for New Mexico children. She has said it allows parents to leave their children in a safe place so they can go to work or school.

Still, state officials acknowledge that less than one-third of the people eligible for the program take advantage of it. About 20,500 children are served each month.

Annette Torres, a single mother with a full-time government job, is among the plaintiffs. She applied for assistance when her daughter was born three years ago and was denied three times.

She described feeling ashamed and helpless.

“My heart sunk because I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said.

Her family helped when they could, paying at times for child care and sending her home on Sundays with extra food as buying groceries became a luxury, she said.

Torres also juggles a house payment and the regular expense of buying gas to get to work and taking her daughter to daycare.

“I’ve had to learn how to stretch every penny,” she said.

Lawyers for Torres and the other plaintiffs are asking the agency to adopt standards for the child care assistance program through a public rulemaking process to make it more affordable and predictable.

The lawsuit also targets co-payments that some families are required to make toward their child care.

The plaintiffs say there is little information publicly available about the way the payments are calculated.

The agency said information about the payments is available online.

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