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New Mexico Tribal, State Leaders Pulling Together Against Pandemic

Navajo: Man and woman stand outside holding jugs of water. He’s smiling, wearing cap with U.S. flag on it. She’s wearing mask.

Courtesy of Sen. George Muñoz

State Sen. George Muñoz and Rosalyn John from the Chichiltah Chapter of the Navajo Nation deliver bottled water.

The arrival of the coronavirus in New Mexico in mid-March toppled the lives of the state’s foster and at-risk youth, who were disconnected from imperative supports, lost their jobs or abruptly faced homelessness.

“We had a young man in the dormitories, and they gave him a ticket to his last known address in Oklahoma,” said Ezra Spitzer, executive director of Albuquerque-based NMCAN. “He’s like, ‘I can’t go there. There’s no there there.’”

In the Navajo Nation border town of Gallup, an out-of-state nurse and her husband tested positive for COVID-19, leaving their kids in a nightmarish situation.

“The parents have moved to a hospital. We’re trying to figure out if [the Children, Youth and Families Department] takes the kids or if there are relatives in New Mexico or if there’s another foster family that will take them,” said state Sen. George Muñoz, a Democrat. 

New Mexico ranks near the middle of the country in both COVID-19 cases and coronavirus-related deaths per capita, according to a New York Times tally. Health experts say the state has been able to stem the tide due to expanded testing and strict directives by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. She issued a March 24 stay-at-home order the day after the state’s first announced death from coronavirus complications. 

At press time, New Mexico, which recently extended its emergency public health order through May 31 but eased some restrictions for nonessential businesses, had 7,252 positive cases and 329 deaths related to the coronavirus, according to the New Mexico Department of Health (DOH). 

Native Americans hit by coronavirus

In recent weeks, the coronavirus has increasingly spread to New Mexico children 19 and younger, though no young person currently housed in state-run juvenile justice facilities have tested positive for the disease. However, “a handful of CYFD employees, seemingly unrelated to their job functions, have tested positive for COVID-19,” said CYFD spokesperson Charlie Moore-Pabst. “They have followed [Department of Health] protocols to prevent spread and self-isolated.” 

CYFD is planning for and implementing surveillance testing measures for populations in congregate care settings, which include juvenile justice, youth shelters, domestic violence shelters, community homes and residential treatment centers, he said.

The pandemic has also made it harder for CYFD to keep tabs on its foster youth, especially after the March 27 New Mexico Supreme Court decision barring in-person visitations with youth in care. On May 21, the state high court reinstated face-to-face family visits in areas where the regional transmission rate for COVID-19 is 1.15 or fewer. 

Although the state is receiving fewer referrals for child abuse and neglect, child welfare advocates are concerned that kids might not be reporting incidences of domestic violence. Historically, children are unlikely to report abuse or neglect while living under the same roof as their abuser. 

Meanwhile, the coronavirus outbreak has unexpectedly affected some of New Mexico’s Native American communities, which were left out of the nation’s first two stimulus packages. 

According to multiple media outlets, the Navajo Nation reservation, which spans New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, previously had the third highest rate of coronavirus deaths in the country, behind New York and New Jersey. But on Tuesday, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez announced that the curve on the reservation — where local medical workers are conducting tests at a higher rate than any state in the country, according to him — had started to flatten. Overall, tribal and state leaders have quietly banded together to try to mitigate the spread. 

Bonds between parents and children have been enhanced during the pandemic, according to CYFD, which administers New Mexico’s child protection and juvenile justice services. 

“The pandemic illustrates how different this state government is from a lot of other states. All of the fixers and problem solvers are working collaboratively because that’s what we do,” Blalock said. “That’s how we fix problems. Nobody is interested in credit or political gain.”

Aged-out youth in care getting help

Blalock says CYFD acted swiftly to protect the state’s vulnerable youth, including sending a monthly $175 stipend to current youth in care. Older youth connected to CYFD through the agency’s independent living programs received a one-time payment of $175.

CYFD has also reached out to more than 500 aged-out youth around the state who were in care in the past seven years. “We’re in close contact with those young people and have let them know that we’re still here for them even though they’re no longer in the service program,” said CYFD spokesperson Melody Wells.

Once coronavirus cases spiked in New Mexico, NMCAN, which offers transition-age services to youth in care and at-risk kids, started delivering food boxes to young people displaced by the pandemic, something the 30-year-old organization had never done before. The nonprofit also distributed approximately 40 tablet computers to youth to bridge crucial communication gaps.

Spitzer says the state Supreme Court order outlawing face-to-face visits has been difficult for vulnerable youth and families. “I think you need to make decisions based on safety, but at the same time, think about being a biological parent and not being able to have any contact with your kid through a pandemic,” he said. “Both ends of that are really hard.”

After the state high court mandated physical distancing measures, CYFD started inundating youth and families with phone calls, text messages and video conferencing.

“A youth that a staff member might have seen once a month is now talking to us a couple of times a week. Though it’s not as valuable as an in-person visit, it’s a way to try to get as close as we can,” Blalock said. “Our staff has become more integrated into the fabric of the lives of children in a way that I don’t know has ever happened in New Mexico.”

Along with stimulus money for current foster youth, which will continue throughout the duration of the governor’s stay at home orders, Blalock says the organization has bought phone minutes and data for parents so that they stay connected with their kids in lieu of face-to-face contact.

CYFD was one of the first states to extend foster care services for youth turning 18 during the pandemic, though it didn’t publicly announce the extension until recently. Out of the 42 youth in care reaching age 18 between Feb. 1 and July 1 this year, 40 said they’ll accept services such as housing support, said Wells of CYFD.

Blalock believes that CYFD is forming vital and long-lasting bonds with kids and families in a state that has historically performed poorly in child safety.

“For most of the people we have working for us on the front lines, when a crisis happens, they actually get calmer and they get more stuff done. That’s why they’re here,” Blalock said. “As a result, CYFD has been a really strong agency during this pandemic. I think folks are trusting us more and more.”

Casino becomes isolation facility

Like other tribal gaming operations in the nation, the Hilton Santa Fe Buffalo Thunder Casino and Resort voluntarily closed operations as a public health precaution. The decision by Pueblo of Pojoaque Gov. Joseph Talachy wasn’t easy because tribal gaming is often an indispensable source of revenue and employment for tribal citizens.

In early April, Talachy made another tough yet progressive choice by transforming Buffalo Thunder into an isolation and quarantine facility for New Mexico’s tribal citizens who have tested positive for COVID-19 as well as others awaiting test results. Soon thereafter, CYFD began offering mental health support, including telehealth and discharge planning, to vulnerable families temporarily housed at Buffalo Thunder.

This is just one example of how tribal leaders in New Mexico are exercising tribal sovereignty in order to protect its citizens. And they’ve done it without new federal aid.

“It took until the third funding package,” said CYFD tribal liaison Donalyn Sarracino (Acoma Pueblo), referring to the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. The CARES Act earmarked $8 billion (instead of the $20 billion that Indian Country lobbied for) to federally recognized tribes. “It was like, ‘Oh yeah, we have tribes here.’”

More than a month after the CARES Act was signed into law on March 27, the Treasury Department, which is facing a federal lawsuit from tribes, including the Navajo Nation, started distributing money to native communities that are desperate for financial help. The Navajo Nation will receive over $600 million from the CARES Act.

[Related: COVID-19 Challenges Don’t Stop Carlsbad Transitional Housing Program]

[Related: For New Mexican, Tribal Leaders, It’s ‘All Hands on Deck’ in 2 Counties]

[Related: Newly Updated Technology Helps CYFD Stay in Touch]

[Related: Las Cruces Case Worker Helping Youth Who Have Aged Out of Care Plus the System-involved]

The lack of financial resources, which includes the stoppage of tribal gaming revenue, has hurt native youth and families. Sparsely populated McKinley County, which contains Gallup, and San Juan County, which encompasses Farmington, currently have the highest volume of COVID-19 cases in the state.

Sarracino says her two biggest priorities during the coronavirus surge are ensuring that children aren’t going hungry, and that youth remain connected to their native culture as well as the natural safeguards provided by tribal communities.

Relief from out of state too

Together, tribal and state agencies — such as the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department (IAD), CYFD, the New Mexico Army National Guard and the New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services Department — are delivering critical food and water supplies to affected native nations, tribes and pueblos. 

At the same time, various coronavirus relief funds were established to help meet critical needs for vulnerable native families and youth. Current funding efforts include the New Mexico Community Foundation’s Native American Relief Fund; the Pueblo Relief Fund, which was created by the All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG) and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center; and the official Navajo Nation COVID-19 Relief Fund

Out-of-state partners are also assisting New Mexico’s tribal communities. The Emergency Meals to You program, a partnership among the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty in Waco, Texas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other organizations, has brought more than 42,000 meals to New Mexico children living in the state’s tribal communities, Blalock says.

Additionally, Keegan King (Acoma Pueblo), bureau chief for communications and policy at IAD, says that the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, based in Socorro, has manufactured hand sanitizer in massive quantities for tribal communities as well as water filtration systems, which IAD plans to deploy soon.

“Our tribal governors, presidents and leaders all over New Mexico have been making incredibly difficult and lifesaving decisions every day,” Sarracino said. “Just to hear in their voices their determination and strength and persistence to make those tough decisions is admirable and deserving of our appreciation and respect.”

Funding questions

Foster care and child welfare advocates are concerned with the aftermath of the coronavirus surge. They range from long-term economic hardships and emotional wellbeing for foster youth to a likely backlog at the courts, which could delay reunification efforts with families.

“We’ve really come together to make sure no young person is on the streets but what happens after?” Spitzer of NMCAN said. “Once the order is lifted, do they get kicked out of the hotels and they’re homeless again? How are you going to get to long-term stability?”

Finances will also be an issue. State lawmakers plan to retool the 2021 fiscal year budget, scheduled to take effect on July 1, during a special session of the New Mexico Legislature, currently scheduled for June 18. In February, state legislators passed a $7.6 billion budget, which was injected with record oil and gas revenue from the Permian Basin, located in the southeastern part of the state.

If policymakers indeed meet this summer, several high-profile spending items could be on the chopping block. For instance, the spending plan approved during the 2020 regular session assigned $320 million to an Early Childhood Department Fund, which child welfare advocates praised as a potential difference maker for kids whose families could be at risk for foster care and child welfare system involvement.

Tribal leaders are hoping for a prominent seat at the table, special session or otherwise, in order to make changes to longstanding issues in Native America. The coronavirus has exposed deficiencies such as a lack of clean running water, which makes it problematic for some people to follow the basic U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guideline of washing one’s hands for at least 20 seconds.

King of IAD says the outdated Indian Health Services (IHS) is ill-equipped to service tribal communities due to a lack of supplies and funding. Generational poverty, a shortage of jobs and corresponding income, and the absence of broadband internet infrastructure exacerbates the challenges for indigenous people.

“We can’t just allow this to be responding to the immediate needs. I hope once things settle down and the curve is flattened, we don’t forget that these are huge needs,” King said. “All it would take is another pandemic or emergency to see huge problems in these tribal communities.”

As terrible as the coronavirus outbreak has been, CYFD’s Sarracino is trying to focus on the bright spots in order to save lives and shield New Mexico’s native youth and families from further harm. 

“I think the pandemic has really been a catalyst for us to expand our capacity by thinking outside of the box,” Sarracino said. “It has forced us to think of ways for those child-parent bonds to not only be maintained but strengthened during this time.”

This story is part of a Youth Today project on foster care in New Mexico. It’s made possible in part by the May and Stanley Smith Charitable Trust. Youth Today is solely responsible for the content and maintains editorial independence.

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