Experts weigh in on New Mexico’s challenges

Searchlight New Mexico asked five national experts in child well-being, health, education and policy to write short essays in response to recent stories we have covered.

You may scroll down to read each op-ed or use the links below to jump between specific ones.

Expanding job skills is everyone’s business

By Sharon Bonney | Coalition on Adult Basic Education

Sharon Bonney

As President Donald Trump moves forward with his pledge to rebuild America’s infrastructure, we’re going to need more workers. And as the nation looks to rebuild the American middle class, we’re going to need more people who are workforce-ready.

Millions of potential workers lack the very basic literacy and numeracy skills required to take the beginning steps that will open the path to higher-paying, family-sustaining wages. Many are unable to even read basic help-wanted ads -- and even if they can, they are often passed over for higher-paying jobs because they lack a high school diploma.

That is the case in New Mexico as it is across the country. While unemployment has dropped to historic lows, those with low literacy skills often bounce from low-paying job to low-paying job, unable to make a family-sustaining wage.

America’s leaders would do well to acknowledge that traditional community colleges and universities, regardless of cost, remain out of reach for more than 36 million adults in this country because would-be students don’t have the basic high school equivalency qualifications to get started.

Fewer than 1.5 million adults a year are getting the help they need to dig their way out of poverty. Many times, the cycle of intergenerational poverty and low literacy continues unabated, and children, families, and communities suffer.

A recent Labor Department study found that employers can’t hire the masonry workers, plumbers, electricians or roofers they need. The gap is widening, and there aren’t enough workers ready to lay the bricks, pour the concrete or wire the networks of new-tech solar power and high-speed data.

America ranks below the international average in literacy, per a 2016 analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics; New Mexico ranks 45th out of 50 states, according to a recent study published by World Atlas. As a whole, the U.S. ranks in the 50th percentile in number skills, according to Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies data. And we’re dead last for problem-solving in that same international survey.

Teachers and administrators, like those of us at the Coalition on Adult Basic Education, are confident that we can train more people to work in America. We provide wraparound services, support and soft-skills development, in addition to literacy, numeracy, science and social studies skills. Our programs in New Mexico partner with apprenticeship programs and workforce development boards so when an adult learner emerges from the program he or she has a guaranteed job.

Now more than ever, it’s time to recognize that expanding job skills is everyone’s business. In some areas, colleges, schools and nonprofits have long been pitching in; new federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act dollars are a good start. But much more is needed.

Our government leaders should recognize that allocating a dollar for an adult education class can save 50 or 60 times more in social services, legal fees and public healthcare costs. The private sector can do more, too, to provide basic education and job training to adults regardless of where those women and men end up employed.

School districts and nonprofits who face stretched budgets can look at innovative ways to bundle reading classes with bus passes or skills courses with childcare.

By offering the basics of adult education and training, New Mexico can be ready to rebuild infrastructure, build a bigger and stronger middle class, strengthen families, grow our businesses and be ever more competitive in this complex global age.

Sharon Bonney is executive director for the Coalition on Adult Basic Education (COABE), an organization that serves the 55,000 educators and administrators who serve the 1.5 million adult learners nationwide. She has led the organization's successful public awareness campaign, focusing on a grassroots effort that mobilized adult educators to make more than 86,000 connections with legislators regarding the value of adult education. This effort staved off $87 million in funding cuts, while adding $60 million to Title II funded programs across the nation.

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To make all kids count, we must count all kids

By Leslie Boissiere | Annie E. Casey Foundation

Leslie Boissiere

This is a perilous moment for New Mexico’s children. There’s no getting around it.

There’s no getting around ranking 50th out of 50 when it comes to children’s well-being, and there’s no getting around the threat to essential resources for children presented by the upcoming United States census.

Yet the future is not predetermined for kids in New Mexico. This state’s leaders can be inspired by this moment to do better by its children. They can choose to collaborate inclusively and act boldly and swiftly. That’s what it will take — both to position the state well for the 2020 census and to give children a better chance to thrive.

It begins with an honest evaluation of how New Mexico is doing right now. The ranking of 50th comes from the 2018 edition of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Book. It provides a multi-dimensional assessment of child well-being nationwide and state-by-state. New Mexico was 49th in providing for children’s economic well-being, 50th in education, 48th in health and 49th in terms of family and community.

Many of the statistics that feed into the ranking are troubling. For instance, 145,000 children in New Mexico live in poverty. That’s 30 percent of the kids in this state while the national average is 19 percent. More than 1 in 5 New Mexico children lives in a high-poverty area; nationally, it’s about 1 in 8. And some 29 percent of New Mexico teens do not graduate from high school on time, the largest such percentage among the states.

At the same time, the approaching census has the potential to exacerbate the existing challenges, because experts believe the count could miss more than 2 million children under the age of 5 nationwide. That’s roughly how many were missed last time, either because whole families were missed, because kids in complex families were inadvertently not included or because many children were living in places traditionally harder to count.

New Mexico is the only state where more than half of all children live in hard-to-count places. And children of color and kids in immigrant families, who already face society’s greatest barriers, are more likely to be missed in the count. Three quarters of New Mexico kids are children of color. The more children who are missed here, the more likely it is that fewer federal dollars will be allocated to New Mexico for resources like schools, libraries and hospitals.

Poor outcomes for children now and the potential for an inaccurate census count in 2020: two big problems, each too urgent to ignore or set aside. But New Mexico leaders have the opportunity and — thanks to a stable state budget with a record surplus — the resources to make change.

New Mexico Voices for Children — the Casey Foundation’s state KIDS COUNT affiliate — offered 30 recommendations to improve the lives of children through public policy in its recent report, New Mexico Kids at the Crossroads. Here are a few:

  • Increase New Mexico’s Working Families Tax Credit and Low Income Comprehensive Tax Credit. Those tools help families lift themselves out of poverty.
  • Enact a new state-level Child Tax Credit for families with children.
  • Significantly increase K-12 funding and invest in a comprehensive preschool early care and learning continuum.

These investments can carry forward for many years. Preparations for the census, however, must focus on the period between now and when the count takes place in April 2020. There is still enough time to make sure the census counts all New Mexico kids:

  • State and local governments and community organizations must invest in educational outreach to ensure the most vulnerable, including the youngest children, are counted.
  • Leaders can enlist trusted messengers and institutions, from child care providers to members of the clergy, to encourage the people they serve to participate in the census.
  • Stakeholders in New Mexico should urge their representatives in Washington to support full funding of the census and act to ensure the protection of respondents’ data.

Truly, the future can be brighter for the half-million children who call the Land of Enchantment home. What state legislators and other decision makers do between now and 2020 will matter enormously. Working together, New Mexico leaders can make sure all children are counted and all kids count.

Leslie Boissiere is vice president of external affairs at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Editor's note: Searchlight New Mexico receives funding support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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The best foster care can do isn’t good enough

By Kate Cleary | Consortium for Children

Kate Cleary

Everyone in my field has a version of how to fix the child welfare system. Some of their solutions are old, others are innovative and many overlap. But until we repair the basic functioning of our public child welfare systems, all of these ideas will go to naught. Poorly funded and understaffed, New Mexico’s Children, Youth & Families Department -- just like every child welfare agency in the U.S. -- is forced to settle for doing the best it can.

Which is not very good.

I should probably state my position. I am a former foster child and adoptee, now a 67-year-old child welfare professional who wants to believe we can do a much better job in protecting our country’s most vulnerable dependents. The children and youth that CYFD takes into custody are all of our children, as surely as if we gave birth to them.

And if any of the children born or adopted by us were being raised in the way that many of our foster children are being cared for, we would be outraged, scared and incited to action. Yet most of us do nothing. We read about the shocking deaths that occur in child welfare, the adoptions gone wrong or the abusive foster families, and think “someone should do something about that!”

Commissions are gathered, investigations ordered, reports written, lawsuits filed, recommendations made. And still nothing changes. Children are placed willy-nilly into homes of which we know virtually nothing -- except for the fact that they meet jurisdictional home safety requirements.

Whether the foster parent (relative or non-relative) can actually meet the needs of a traumatized child doesn’t seem to matter. All that matters is that they have plugs in their electrical outlets, a single bed where the child will sleep, and a fence around the swimming pool or water well. We don’t ask if the family has the ability to nurture a traumatized child, or whether, possibly, they may even add to the trauma that child has already experienced.

In Child Welfareland, there are so few foster parents that workers frequently report driving around with a traumatized child for hours while waiting for a “bed” to open. It’s not uncommon for children to sit in a social worker’s office for days -- simply because there is no “bed” available. If they are old enough -- 14, for instance, they may be placed for one or more nights in a motel.

When a child is removed from her family, we simply stick her in any bed we can find and hope for the best. That phenomenon isn’t because child welfare agencies want to do this to the children in their care -- it is because they have no alternatives.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. The flow chart of child welfare is a thing of beauty. Take a child into care, place her into a fully prepared and assessed foster family or relative, and provide reunification services to the family of origin. If reunification fails, place the child in a loving and well-prepared adoptive home that can meet her needs.

All this is supposed to happen within about 18 months of a child being taken into care. This is so we minimize the child’s trauma of living within the child welfare system.

What the flow chart doesn’t take into consideration is the low funding of public child welfare agencies, the high caseloads of social workers, and a judiciary that seemingly works at cross purposes from the social workers’ recommendations.

Unfortunately, human behavior rarely follows flow charts. Almost every safety requirement for the approval of a foster or adoptive family (except for those that pertain to federal or state monies) is waivable.

But human beings don’t recover or change their behaviors according to arbitrary government timelines. While children are expected to patiently wait as the system moves them through its flow chart, they often grow increasingly damaged – more damaged than they were when they entered the system.

I suggest we listen to these children. What they’re often quick to tell you is that the trauma of being raised in the U.S. child welfare system is worse than any trauma of staying with their families.

Imagine being “raised” by the Postal Service.

Kate Cleary is executive director of Consortium for Children, a national organization that supports and collaborates with public child welfare agencies, families, the court system and other participants in the public child welfare system. She is currently working with New Mexico’s Children, Youth & Families Department to provide better outcomes for children and youth in foster care.


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Children don’t immigrate, they flee

By ChrisAnna Mink | Pediatrician

ChrisAnna Mink

Last August, in the pediatric clinic in South Los Angeles where I work, I took care of a 10-year-old boy named Carlos.

Carlos had spent his life watching his father beat his mother. He watched as local gang members chopped a man to death with a machete. When that gang threatened to kill him unless he joined them, the boy and his mother fled El Salvador to seek safety in the United States.

By the time I saw him, Carlos and his mother were living with a pastor’s family in Los Angeles. His mother said she felt safe, but Carlos couldn’t tolerate being apart from her. He couldn’t sleep and suffered from nightmares of bloody bodies chasing him through the streets. The color red provoked anxiety. He was always looking around for “bad guys,” and sought comfort in food. He was significantly overweight.

I can’t imagine how devastating it would have been for Carlos to have been torn from his mother’s arms -- and how horrific it must be for the thousands of children still separated from their parents.

Kirstjen Nielsen, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, denied on Twitter that the government had a formal policy to separate children and parents. However, in April 2018, DHS implemented a "zero tolerance" policy, which stated that anyone attempting to cross the border illegally would be prosecuted. The policy included specific plans for placement of children whose parents were detained.

Nielsen emphasized that DHS was simply enforcing the law, that illegal crossing of the border is a crime and that criminals are routinely separated from their children. However, treating unauthorized border crossing as a criminal offense wasn’t routinely done before.

Nearly 2,000 children were separated from parents and placed in detention centers under this malevolent policy during April and May. After public outcry, President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending the policy in June. However, about 500 kids still have not been reunited with their parents - some because the parents have already been deported and can’t be located, according to the Washington Post.

That policy hasn’t worked.

The New York Times reported in September that the number of all immigrant minors in detention centers has skyrocketed to a record level of 12,800. In comparison, about 2,400 youth, mostly unaccompanied adolescents, were in the centers in May 2017. The number of children and teens crossing the border is similar to that of previous years. However, because of fear of the immigration system, fewer friends and relatives are coming forward to sponsor them. So, the kids languish in the centers.

The detention centers are over-crowded, and conditions are anything but appropriate for children. Colleen Kraft, pediatrician and president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, was reportedly crushed that she couldn’t console a crying toddler during a visit to a center in Texas last summer. She was informed of a rule -- that children couldn’t be touched -- that is counterintuitive to everything we know about caring for young children.

My brain can’t “un-see” children locked in wire cages that resemble pens owned by a cruel dog catcher. I can’t block the image of a pink-shirted toddler, crying in the night with ICE officers staring down at her -- or a little boy, void of emotion as his dad hugged him after a long separation.

Those migrant kids are my patients. I know their stories. I treat families from the violence-ravaged Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, and I know why they flee. It is to save their lives.

The traumatic events they experience trigger the body’s stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those chemicals are necessary for the “fight or flight” instinct to respond to danger. However, chronic elevation of the stress hormones is caustic, leading to "toxic stress" that undermines a child’s sense of safety and well-being, and is detrimental to brain development.

Living in fear, witnessing violence and loss of a parent (such as through divorce or incarceration), are known adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs. Living through ACEs correlates with poor physical and mental health during childhood and into adulthood. Being separated from a loving parent is an ACE, and some of the damage may be irreparable.

Jonathan White, deputy director for Children’s Programs at the Office of Refugee Resettlement, told the Senate Judiciary Committee in July that DHS was aware of the potential harm to children. The Trump administration chose to proceed anyway.

This is a violation of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child – an internationally sanctioned treaty that recognizes the human rights of children. Although ratification doesn’t guarantee protection of children, the U.S. is the only country that has not ratified it.

Migrant children are, first of all, children. They should be treated with special care appropriate to their age and development and secured in safe family environments whenever possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly condemned separating children from their parents, as did a multitude of professional organizations.

I have never been prouder to be an AAP member.

ChrisAnna Mink MD is a pediatrician in South Los Angeles and clinical professor of pediatrics at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. She received her master’s degree in specialized journalism from USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism. Her specific areas of interests include health care for underserved communities, child wellbeing and global health.

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Putting a stopper in New Mexico’s brain drain problem

By Maggie Werner-Washburne | UNM biology professor

Maggie Werner-Washburne

I confess: I am partly responsible for New Mexico’s brain drain.

So are many of my colleagues at the University of New Mexico and other New Mexico schools.

Over the years, we have worked to encourage and help our students pursue education and maximize their career opportunities, often outside the state. The better we did our job, the more often they left for advanced education and jobs. And because we thought our work was done, we neglected to take the next step: bringing them back home.

Last year, I saw the problem clearly: I had mentored and trained more than 500 STEM (science, tech, engineering and math) students, many of whom had left New Mexico for advanced degrees and jobs. These young professionals are exactly the kind of workforce needed to build the state’s economic future. They know and love New Mexico. But they confronted barriers connecting with the companies that needed them.

So I did what comes naturally to me as a scientist. I conducted an experiment: a three-day event now called STEM Boomerang (previously New Mexico Educated Workforce in STEM), and scheduled it for the 2017 Christmas season, when many of these young professionals had plans to visit their families.

From Searchlight New Mexico

>> Graduates are leaving New Mexico behind

It attracted 115 professionals -- 60 percent of them with PhDs -- and linked them with economic leaders and representatives of 30 local companies and national labs. The event was very successful, and we continue to help participants with career connections.

The next STEM Boomerang will take place Dec. 20. Visit www.stemboomerang.org for more information.

But there remain major challenges to career connections, including the following:

  • The wrong expectations. New Mexico needs entrepreneurs and visionaries, so “keeping them here” is not a model for innovation. Young people are not products, and the educational process should not be a pipeline that treats them as passive objects. Our students have the potential to be explorers and creative thinkers. My work as a teacher and mentor is to help young people get to the top of their life’s mountain. Building a career in New Mexico should be a positive, attractive choice. There are compelling reasons to be here. If coming back or staying is their choice, we will have a happy, more creative workforce, dedicated to building our state and our economy. New Mexico should be a destination, not a prison.
  • Too many job boards that are difficult to find and hard to navigate. New Mexico needs to understand who our competition is. Because it’s not here. We need to make it easier for professionals to find us. A search for a potential STEM professional career currently takes a long time, lacks a unified message, and, typically, does not include the startups and small biotech and tech companies where exciting careers often begin. We need a one-stop-shop, including information about the hiring process, which can vary greatly among national laboratories, schools and businesses. We have to imagine what it is like for the job-seeker.
  • Forgetting that personal interactions are key. Millennials -- like boomers -- trust personal connections to develop their career paths. Introductions are important. Sadly, we found many faculty and academic departments neglected to keep in touch with former students. The most valuable piece of my program, in addition to my roster of jobs and well-trained students, was a database of contacts.
  • Infrastructure challenges. The fun part was getting businesses to the table, but it took tremendous effort on my part. I spent days talking to business groups, calling businesses, talking to HR representatives and CEOs, getting them to fill out a business survey that became our job board. Business people were the bright spots in this process. I was helped especially by Nyika Allen, Lisa Kuuttila and Greg Byrnes, economic development professionals in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. We need businesss to sign on now for 2018.
  • New Mexico publicity. We need a better business-publicity stream. A great idea in New Mexico should have a mechanism for every outlet to know about it and help publicize it. This may exist, but I couldn’t find it. In a state like New Mexico, we need to embrace and publicize good ideas wherever they come from. For the state to succeed, we need to be a real team.

The first Boomerang was funded by University of New Mexico and my program - and free to everyone who wanted to attend. I kept wondering why the idea didn’t go viral, so people could encourage their children and friends to participate. Why wasn’t it mentioned at every business, professional, city council and church group meeting?

How can we make good news travel faster?

Maggie Werner-Washburne was born in Iowa, lived from Alaska to Colombia and Minnesota to Hawaii, Samoa, and New Zealand and has been a biology professor at UNM for 30 years. Her research was in yeast genetics and genomics and she also ran a successful pre-PhD mentoring program funded by the National Institutes of Health. Maggie is also a musician, wife, and mother.

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