Your turn: What do our kids need?

Searchlight New Mexico asked seven prominent citizens and change-makers to weigh in on “The Road So Far,” the first group of stories in our yearlong series on the challenges children face growing up in our state. Why, we asked, given all the time and effort spent trying to improve the conditions for children over the past 10 years, hasn’t the needle moved on so many measures? What can New Mexico do in the next two years that would actually make a difference? Here are their answers.

 George Davis

 Tara Ford

 Diego Gallegos

 Trisha Moquino

 Deborah Phillips

 John C. Wester

 Harvey Yates Jr.

Early investments in children can prevent costly lifetime of effects from damage

It is a secret in plain sight that the majority of children seen in mental health settings in New Mexico are treated not for intrinsic mental illness, but rather to mend the consequences of early maltreatment.

Not only are all children in protective state custody the victims of abuse and neglect by definition, research from the last two decades has conclusively found that delinquency and criminality are themselves the long-term results of early abuse and neglect.

That means New Mexico’s most costly social systems are created by the state’s original failure to protect and care for families and their children.

As a child psychiatrist at Children, Youth and Families Department, it was not uncommon for me to watch an abused child transition into state custody, only to soon graduate to the mental health system and then, eventually, when their behaviors became too extreme, to the delinquency system.

Cases such as these are known as “million dollar children” for the almost limitless resources they consume. We attend out of necessity to the childcare tragedies and dangers of delinquency once they occur, but for the life of us we do not know how to get in front of them.

Without exaggeration, the future of the individual and society at large depend upon those first crucial years. And it should cause us great alarm how little of our scarce social resources are devoted to those years — and how much is instead spent on repairing the damage done by not protecting children to begin with.

Young children are possessed with an exquisite sensitivity to their environments, and anything that threatens the relationship with their primary caretakers is almost guaranteed to affect their neurodevelopment.

Within the first five years of life, the trajectory is set for the most important skills a person will ever possess — such fundamental traits as the capacity for attachment and empathy, the ability to self-regulate and to be calmed, and the tendency to seek primary reward from contact with other humans rather than from drugs.

It is tempting to offer platitudes and defer the remedies that are desperately required. But unless we invest now in families and young children, we will never reduce our spending on incarceration or addiction treatment. It is only through the social support of children that we can prevent future disastrous outcomes.

This is the lesson offered to us nearly 20 years ago by the Adverse Childhood Experience research, written about in depth by Searchlight New Mexico. When the original investigators of that study analyzed their data and realized the impact that early childhood experiences had over later health and behavioral outcomes, their response was, “This changes everything.”

We continue to await the day when it actually does.

George Davis is a child and adolescent psychiatrist who previously served as Director of Psychiatry for the New Mexico Department of Children, Youth and Families. Prior to that he was on faculty at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine as Division Director and Vice Chair of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. He also worked for several years at the Indian Health Service, providing care for several of the pueblos and tribal hospitals and clinics in New Mexico. Dr. Davis became a Child Trauma Academy Fellow in 2011. His primary areas of interest are delinquency as an outcome of early neglect and abuse and systems of care for severely disabled and underserved populations.

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Aiming high: Organizing our communities around children

There is a reason that New Mexico routinely battles it out with Mississippi over which state has the worst child welfare rankings: We do not have the social or political will to fully invest in our children.

Make no mistake, no magic potion will create the change we need. If we want to make life better for children, we need to get serious about mobilizing the private, public and nonprofit sectors to improve the work they are already doing.

Changing the circumstances for children in our state is a long-haul effort that stagnates unless we continually and ambitiously strive to do more, and to do it better. As part of this effort, at minimum, we must hold our city, county and state leaders accountable for allocating and distributing more of our resources to directly benefit children.

To be sure, we already know how to improve the lives of children in New Mexico.  It should come as no surprise that allocating resources to support vulnerable children and families works.

I am one example. Between 1986 and 1989, I was a single mother in college, benefiting from significant governmental support, including WIC, subsidized child care, a Pell Grant and work-study funds.  Higher education enabled me to have sufficient funds to provide for my daughter.

I also learned early that successfully raising children required more than just adequate income. My work-study job was at Peanut Butter & Jelly (PB&J), a community based therapeutic preschool that required parent involvement. As a classroom assistant and new parent, I learned about child development. Along the way, many people invested time and effort to help me succeed.

Ultimately, the government received a good return on investment. My oldest daughter went to graduate school and is now an early childhood educator. I was able to attend law school and start a nonprofit legal organization in New Mexico that not only employs many New Mexicans but also provides legal services to children and families.

Safety net services are essential, and they work.

We also have powerful examples of communities coming together for the well-being of children. The Native American Community Academy (NACA), a public charter school in Albuquerque, was created when over 100 community members came together around the question of how to improve education for Native American students. People envisioned a school that embraced the values of personal wellness, cultural identity and academic success.

So when students walk into NACA, they see pennants from first-rate colleges hanging on the walls, along with posters of Native American leaders, inspirational quotes and student art. Teachers, parents, tribal partners, community providers and students work tirelessly to embrace high academic standards, while honoring and sustaining students’ identities, cultures and traditions.

By any measure, NACA has shown results: Its students attend our nation’s best post-secondary institutions. We need to champion more community institutions like NACA, institutions that both engage and serve our diverse children and their families.

We already know how to improve the state of the state for our children. It is time to mobilize the political will to make the right choices.  

Tara Ford is a Clinical Supervising Attorney and Lecturer at Law with the Youth and Education Law Project (YELP), a project of the Mills Legal Clinic at Stanford Law School. She has focused her career on issues impacting children and their families, including special education, health care, mental health care and child welfare.  Previously, Ford was the co-founder of Pegasus Legal Services for Children, a nonprofit law firm serving children and their families in New Mexico.  In 2016, she authored “Pegasus Legal Services for Children: Taking Stock of a Rebellious Non-Profit Practice in New Mexico,” published by the Clinical Law Review.

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To finally improve child well-being, collaboration is key

Why can’t we move the needle on child well-being?

We know generally that successful and supportive families have successful children and that families that are struggling have children that struggle. Yet we continue to focus our efforts on supporting children but not their families, and we continue to get poor results for children.

Families in poverty are stressed by the impact of no or low wages: substandard housing, high transportation costs, the simple inability to give their children the basics while being bombarded by images of wealth and prosperity through the media. Stressed by disconnected and overwhelmed social service and safety nets that seem to work against them rather than for them. And stressed by an educational system that can’t find answers to the educational needs of poor children, especially those of color.

In more severe cases that stress leads to abuse or emotional abandonment of children. In more cases, family and adult stress leads to stressed out children who carry that stress into their classrooms and schools, making teaching and learning more difficult.  

Some early childhood environments, like Head Start, provide support to both children and their families.  Staff engage families at school, in their homes and communities, working with the family to help build parenting skills and to solve life’s challenges, building capacity and skills. At YDI Head Start, 47 percent of the staff are prior Head Start family members.

A National Institute of Health study released in January 2018 found that students who participated in an intensive early childhood program were more likely to attain an academic degree beyond high school. This program supported children through third grade more intensely than most public school programs but closer to what is generally provided in most schools. The biggest difference is that the program also provided parents with training in job and parenting skills, educational classes and social services. It encouraged school involvement and parenting group participation. All this is similar to the Head Start model.

Head Start families transition to an educational system without the mission, resources, or capacity to support families. Let’s support teachers by strengthening and better funding those support systems. Families that are stronger provide more support to their children. But let’s do it in a connected, collaborative way.

When government agencies or philanthropic foundations provide resources to families and  children, there is usually a competition to determine who gets the resources to provide services. While competition may be healthy, collaboration is a much more effective, successful, and cost-effective approach. Incentivize nonprofit organizations to work together, using each one’s strengths to connect services. This approach will require leadership at the governmental, the nonprofit, and foundation levels to support this type of collaboration.

Working together more effectively to support families in need may be the action that finally moves the needle on child well being.

Diego Gallegos, Ph.D., is President and CEO of YDI, a nationally recognized youth service organization based in Albuquerque that partners with families to help them solve life’s problems. Gallegos came to YDI after 39 years in public education, where he served at the senior leadership level of the New Mexico Public Education Department and the Albuquerque Public Schools. His family came to the South Valley in the 1600s, and he lives there today with his wife Teresa Archuleta, a secondary charter school principal and New Mexico’s National Distinguished Principal K-8 in 2010.

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Education efforts must build on strengths of N.M.’s tribal communities

New Mexico is a beautiful state. One of the aspects that makes our state so beautiful is the presence of the 22 tribal nations who are Indigenous to the Land of Enchantment. If we want to continue to thrive as a state, we must support the Tribal Communities in the education they desire for their children.

2017 New Mexico Public Education Department web data shows that 44 percent of American Indian kindergarteners are proficient in pre-reading skills. But by the time they reach the fourth grade, only 14 percent of them are proficient in reading.

If early childhood education works, why have these scores persisted for more than 10 years? The fact that they have not significantly improved illustrates that Early Childhood efforts in New Mexico must be done with tribes, not for tribes.

Historically, the state’s early childhood and other educational efforts did to or did for rather than doing with tribal communities. They must be genuinely inclusive of the 22 tribal communities in the state of New Mexico, acknowledging the tribal languages, beliefs and values about children and their well-being.

These are steeped in traditions that have been around long before colonization occurred. And early childhood education and the boarding school era — along with other colonization practices — have historically devalued these practices and beliefs in New Mexican tribal communities.

Today, in many tribal communities, beliefs about caring and raising children are embedded in the tribes’ languages. They exist with a particular worldview.

Each tribe’s worldview holds the knowledge and ways in which a tribe sees its children. Perhaps New Mexico’s Early Childhood institutions should consider working with tribes to ask them what they think is best for their children.

One of New Mexico’s strengths is its linguistic diversity. Among the state’s 22 tribes, nine indigenous languages are spoken.  Perhaps New Mexico Early Childhood education — and education in general — should focus on the success of dual-language education, which has been the only form of education to close the “achievement gap.”

Children who participate in quality dual-language education from early childhood through middle and high school eventually outperform their monolingual peers by the time they are in eighth grade, as demonstrated in the research of Wayne Thomas and Virginia Collier, education professors at George Mason University.

In the next two years, New Mexico Early Childhood advocates should focus their efforts on the work of the Walatowa Head Start, the Keres Children’s Learning Center, and the Native American Community Academy Elementary. Those programs provide a holistic approach that is inclusive of the tribes and languages they serve.

New Mexico early childhood efforts need to stop the one-size-fits-all approach and find a way to build on the strengths of our tribal communities. Education as it exists today is deficit-based. We must make it an education that focuses on the strengths of our tribal communities, ultimately supporting tribes in their right to Education Sovereignty. Taking these steps will be time-consuming and expensive, but if we take the time to do it right, we will start to see the needle move for the benefit and beauty of all of New Mexico.

Trisha Moquino is co-founder and educational director of the Keres Children’s Learning Center on the Pueblo de Cochiti reservation where she herself was raised (as well as on the Kewa Pueblo). It was while working as a public school teacher in 2006 that Moquino, a Stanford University graduate, decided she was perpetuating an educational system that didn’t work for many Indigenous children. She envisioned a school that would support the Cochiti language and culture. KCLC is the result of that vision.

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Time to take N.M.’s early education accomplishments to next level

Business leaders, educators and policy leaders share the belief that one of the best ways to build a productive and prosperous society is to start early in building children’s foundation for learning, health and positive behavior. The science underlying this belief is solid: Evidence at the intersection of neurobiology, developmental science and economics converges on preschool education as the single most promising strategy for ensuring that this foundation is sturdy, inclusive and cost-effective.

Why is this the case? The brain’s basic architecture and circuitry develop rapidly during the early childhood years. Experiences in pre-K aimed at addressing the consequences of adversity and providing environments rich in language and playful cognitive stimulation can strengthen the critical neural networks that power up early learning.  Pre-K programs also afford wonderful opportunities to support young children’s social development, including empathy and tolerance in our increasingly diverse society.   

This evidence includes research conducted in New Mexico, which showed that children who attended state-funded pre-K programs were significantly more likely to perform at grade level in reading and math through elementary school, and significantly less likely to be placed in special education or retained in grade.

My own research in Tulsa, Oklahoma, confirms these findings and extends them into middle school. It finds that the strongest benefits accrue to dual-language learners and to children who have likely experienced adverse early life experiences that seriously compromise brain and behavioral development.

Two recent national reports have also confirmed that investments in pre-K education consistently demonstrate returns in the form of higher achievement, lower grade retention, reduced if not eliminated income-related achievement gaps, and associated cost savings.  

The message is clear: Pre-K education offers a strong pathway towards success for New Mexico’s children. Fortunately, the state has a solid base to build upon, ranking 16th in the nation on 4-year olds’ pre-K participation rates and 20th on spending, as well as on requirements that all pre-K programs meet quality standards.

Why not aim to be first in the nation?  Constructive next steps would involve:

  • forging a successful collaboration with New Mexico’s Head Start program, as has been done in Tulsa;
  • ensuring that the future pre-K teaching workforce is populated with talented young adults who are supported with a living wage and on-going opportunities for professional development; and
  • continuing commitment to identifying the key ingredients of successful programs and with rigorous evaluations of impact.

The State of New Mexico should be very proud of its accomplishments in early education. Now it is time to take these accomplishments to a new level, with added investments focused on moving from 70 percent to 100 percent of participating school districts in collaboration with Head Start and with a continued focus on high-quality experiences for young children informed by ongoing program evaluation.

With the combined engagement, energy and willpower of business leaders, educators, policymakers and scientists alike, this strategy will move the needle on child well-being in New Mexico as it has done in other locales across the nation.

Deborah Phillips is a psychology professor at Georgetown University. She currently serves on the National Board for Education Sciences (U.S. Department of Education) and the Research Advisory Board of the Committee on Economic Development. Her research on the developmental impacts of early education – child care, pre-K and Head Start – has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Child Care Bureau, and numerous national foundations, as well as recognized at White House conferences and the State of the Union address. Phillips has a home in Santa Fe and was a visiting scholar at the University of New Mexico in 2016.

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Plight of New Mexico’s children is true doomsday scenario

For eight years, there has been debate over funding early childhood programs, yet there has been no substantial investment to create an intervention that will change the trajectory of our children. Much time, but little paid effort, has been spent to fund proven programs. We cannot call 32 percent of children receiving pre-K a full effort.  We cannot call fewer than 5 percent receiving home visiting a full effort.

The disparity is surprising, even more so when shown by the U.S. Census that 36 percent of our children under the age of 5 live in poverty while the state accumulates a Land Grant Permanent Fund of 17.2 billion.  State Investment Council and Legislative Finance Council members offer unfounded projections of LGPF doomsday scenarios, of the stock market crashing and gas and oil dropping.  Yet both have come and gone and the fund has proven to be strong.  

The true doomsday is the condition of our children.  Adverse childhood experiences are at epidemic proportions in New Mexico.  If we calculate the hardship and cost to society for crime, educational remediation and an unprepared workforce, this is the doomsday scenario playing out right in front of us.

We are at the bottom of the barrel of all outcomes of children’s well-being, yet there is another barrel, which has become a golden calf, which is overflowing.  Commissions paid on the management of the LGPF have been referred to as a drop in the bucket, yet asking for a distribution of 1 percent is a smaller drop than was paid in commissions.  The proposition that this 1 percent would deplete the fund is not true.  

The lack of programs is why our outcomes have not improved.  Polls show that New Mexicans are ready to support 1 percent being drawn from the LGPF; to make real change we must place this issue on the ballot.

As a leader of the Catholic Church in New Mexico, I view this through the lens of the Gospel, echoed in the challenges to care for our children presented by Pope Francis.  For Catholics, fidelity to the Gospel is a communal call for a preferential option for the poor.  The reality is that if a great many of our children are in poverty, we all are impoverished.

An investment in human capital is recession-proof.  A resilient society creates more profit for a state than the dependency on a trust gambled daily in the stock market.

Be assured of my prayers for the children of New Mexico.  I urge all people of good will to keep our children in our hearts, in our minds, and in our voices to bring about productive change.

John C. Wester was appointed Archbishop of Santa Fe two years ago by Pope Francis. He was ordained a priest in 1976.

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Easing regulation would improve life for New Mexico’s children

The number of people living in extreme poverty in the world has been markedly reduced in the last couple of decades. This wonderful result has arisen, in large part, from unleashing the entrepreneurial drive and the work ethic of millions of individuals by beefing-up their property rights, by lessening regulatory restraints, and by diminishing the legal insecurity which arises from political and regulatory capriciousness. As poverty declined in much of the world, the well-being of millions of children improved.

Though New Mexico has not known the depths of poverty suffered in much of the world, still, recently, when on the average poverty diminished and child well-being improved worldwide, the same did not happen in New Mexico.  Here poverty increased and child well-being seems to have declined. Why?

There is a virus in New Mexico’s programming. Our plan seems to be to leash rather than unleash entrepreneurial drive and to stifle work ethic rather than to promote it. Here, property rights have been diminished and legal insecurity has risen as political and regulatory capriciousness are too often the norm.

New Mexico’s programming for failure is not new. Upon the conquest of the Southwest, the U.S. pledged in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to honor the Spanish and Mexican land grants. In other areas, such as California, perhaps it did that, but in New Mexico its commitment to the treaty was wobbly. Here, confirmation of a significant portion of the land grants lingered until land was dispossessed to make it available for federal purposes – such as national forests.

This action warmed the hearts of Progressives such as Teddy Roosevelt, who felt they had a national vision which justified the political capriciousness which led to the land takings. But for the land-grant families the dispossession too often meant impoverishment and dependency. Of course, the well-being of children was affected.

Though the ownership of the land changed, many families continued to make their living from the forests. Then a new Progressive initiative arrived – the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Under the act, thousands of acres were set aside for the Mexican spotted owl, which caused dozens of sawmills to close, companies to fold and thousands of workers to lose their jobs both in northern New Mexico and elsewhere.

The capriciousness which resulted in the land-grant takings and then the Endangered Species Act, moved families away from self-sufficiency toward dependency. The Great Society programs of the 1960s melded well with these circumstances, and Welfare was there waiting to take up the slack.

Boys who used to learn a trade – logging, farming, ranching or a related trade – from their fathers, now had little opportunity to do so. The government edged in on the father. It too often became the family supporter with the consequent effect on the family.

A child who has learned to work is on the way to success. On the other hand, idle children are particularly susceptible to the drug culture. It should have been no surprise to us that Rio Arriba County became one of the nation’s heroin overdose capitals.

Progressive initiatives haven’t ended. Soon we will sacrifice hundreds of Navajo coal jobs to the god of Global Warming. The expansion of the oil and gas industry outside of the traditional oil basins has been stopped. A significant gas discovery in Otero County still sits idle two decades after its discovery. Progressive-driven hysteria has killed drilling in southern Sandoval County.

No new mine over 10 acres in size has been permitted in the state since the passage of Progressive’s New Mining Act of 1993, so with closure of the molybdenum mine many miners will move to another state or be driven to dependency.

Much more can be written about the decline of child well-being in New Mexico. We put patches on the problem. In the meantime, child well-being, on the average, improves in the world because political and regulatory capriciousness has declined.  In New Mexico an increase in such capriciousness has led to the opposite result.

Harvey Yates Jr. is the national committeeman for the Republican Party of New Mexico. He previously served as party chair from 2009 to 2010. He is president of Jalapeno Corp., an oil exploration company with offices in New Mexico and Nevada. Yates is the grandson of Martin Yates Jr., who is considered the “Father of the New Mexico Oil Business.” The Yates family has been ranked among the nation’s wealthiest families by Forbes Magazine.

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