SANTA FE (KRQE) – The death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela has created a big political issue but it’s also called attention to a big ongoing problem in New Mexico.
Both Democratic and Republican leaders acknowledge CYFD is understaffed and has had a hard time recruiting and retaining case workers.
“It’s a tough job,” said Gov. Susana Martinez. “We don’t want to have that revolving door of investing in a lot of training and then a year and a half later they’ve gone to another agency.“
“We can’t recruit them,” said Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque. “And once we recruit them, we can’t keep them.”
A legislative audit found 15 percent of those jobs most vital to protecting kids weren’t filled last year. Millions of budgeted dollars went unspent.
There are solutions being proposed. Martinez wants to hike pay for social workers this year.
Now Sen. Padilla has introduced a bill with another approach. He wants to give would-be case workers a big incentive.
“We will pay for two years of your bachelor’s degree, the last two years of your bachelor’s degree, but you’ve got to work for CYFD for 24 months,” Padilla said, “We’ll pay for the last year of your master’s degree in social work, but you’ve got to work for CYFD for 12 months.”
Under the bill, if case workers go back on that deal, they’d owe the state what it paid for their education plus a hefty interest payment. Padilla’s proposal requires $2 million to be set aside to pay those tuition costs.
Padilla got nearly half of the Senate to co-sponsor the legislation, including several Republican lawmakers.
Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, was one Republican who signed on calling it a win-win. CYFD gets a steady pipeline of workers and a longer guarantee that they’ll keep those workers, while aspiring social workers get help with their education and are more ready for a tough job.
“If these folks are trained and educated in social work and understand some of these things through their education, I think they’ll be better prepared to deal with it,” Rue said.
Because Padilla’s bill calls for an appropriation, he says it’s allowed to be heard by lawmakers regardless of whether or not the governor puts it on the legislative agenda.