The $30-a-night motel, on a seedy stretch of Albuquerque’s East Central Avenue, was what her parents could afford. The Preeces were struggling with drug and alcohol abuse when, in 2015, a caseworker from the Children, Youth and Families Department knocked on their door to investigate an allegation of neglect.
“I was really mad,” recalls C.J.’s mother, Carlotta Preece. “I mean, CYFD came to the motel room, and I snapped at them. They asked me, ‘What do you want?’ I said, ‘I need a home.’ ”
They got one, thanks to Keeping Families Together, a pilot project that addresses the intersecting problems of homelessness and child abuse and neglect. It is the first time New Mexico has turned to housing as a tool to reduce the state’s long-standing epidemic of child abuse.
The idea comes by way of New Mexico Appleseed, an Albuquerque think tank that estimates 16,000 homeless children reside in New Mexico, placing the state among the 10 worst in the nation. That figure, combined with statistics showing 72 percent of mothers and 47 percent of fathers who lose their children to foster care are either homeless or on the verge of homelessness, convinced state officials the program had merit.
When New Mexico decided to invest $2.9 million of federal funding in KFT, child advocates and policymakers asked the following questions: Could a roof over their heads, and ancillary services such as drug treatment and therapy, help keep families together? More importantly, could a home be enough to keep a child safe from abuse and neglect?
Three years later, the answer is a tentative yes.
KFT has provided stable housing for 86 families and 267 children in Bernalillo, Valencia and Doña Ana counties. It has prevented dozens of kids from ending up in foster care. It also has reduced the incidence of repeat abuse and neglect by two-thirds among those families who participated in the program for at least a year, according to Albuquerque Heading Home, the nonprofit that CYFD contracted to run the pilot program.
“It’s the first initiative that I have found in New Mexico that truly addresses housing instability as a root cause of child maltreatment,” says Jenny Ramo, Appleseed’s executive director. “When you do not have adequate housing — whether you are in a motel, your car or a house with too many families — you are significantly more likely to abuse or neglect your child.”
But when the KFT pilot program ends in June, some 44 families will be dropped — including the Preeces. And while CYFD plans to continue the program under a new contract, the agency is now grappling with how to learn from the problems evident in the pilot.
Among them: Far too many families were placed in housing they will never be able to afford on their own; overwhelmed caseworkers were unable to provide the attention required by needy clients; the “permanent” housing recommended by Appleseed turned out to be merely temporary, potentially destabilizing fragile families.
What’s more, Appleseed, CYFD and Heading Home — in other words, the think tank that promoted the idea, the state agency that administered the contract and the nonprofit that ran the program — still don’t agree on either the mission or its methods.
Ramo argues that misses the point: “If there is a pie chart of these families, some percentage are never going to support themselves. They will go back to where they came from and start again with the problems and the expenses.”
When the Preece family moved out of Tewa Lodge and into a three-story townhouse in a gated community in the Jackson neighborhood of Albuquerque, the first thing C.J. did was number the bedrooms 1, 2, 3: one for her parents, one for her teenage sister and one just for her.
Now, 2½ years of life-changing stability are about to come to a halt.
Carlotta has medical issues that keep her from working. Her husband, Jeremy, sober for eight months, brings home $600 every two weeks as night manager at a busy Mexican restaurant. At $1,210 a month, their three-bedroom townhouse is way beyond their means.
Sitting on her couch in a tidy, carpeted living room with a big-screen TV, Carlotta proudly nods at the family portrait on the fireplace mantel.
Blocking the path to foster care
Traumatic for children and expensive for the state, foster care is almost always a decision of last resort. A single placement costs about $21,000 a year, while a case of maltreatment that ends in adoption costs an estimated $107,000, according to CYFD. Altogether, the state spends $145 million a year in state and federal money on the problem of child abuse and neglect.
The KFT program is comparatively cost-effective: Including the price of rent, utilities and a caseworker, housing a family runs the state between $14,000 and $19,000 a year, according to Heading Home.
“If we can keep the family together safely, we want to keep the family together,” says Martin.
In 2014, the Legislative Finance Committee reported that New Mexico spends less than most states per capita to prevent children from ending up in foster care. The report recommended that CYFD recalibrate its focus to prevention. But since then, some preventive services that have shown results have been abandoned; others, like KFT, haven’t been scientifically tested.
Meanwhile, the number of kids in foster care has risen 44 percent over the past five years to about 2,600 from about 1,800.
Families that participate in KFT have access to a wealth of resources: workforce training, help applying for public housing vouchers, gas and grocery assistance, mental health counseling and drug rehabilitation.
A crushing reality
Valenzuela’s rent is $1,200. She recently lost her minimum-wage job as a maid for a national hotel chain. Her children are now 12, 11, 9, 6 and 5. She doesn’t have a car.
Searchlight New Mexico is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to investigative journalism. Read more of the organization’s stories on Raising New Mexico at projects.searchlightnm.com.