The COVID-19 medical crisis may be over, but its toll on the health and welfare of New Mexico children remains for some. Many children have no permanent shelter or legal guardian after losing a parent or primary caretaker to the pandemic. Some are suffering mentally after being trapped in a violent home during months of lockdown, without even school as a temporary escape. Others find themselves in households where addictions have filled voids from job loss, their steady income and family security shattered.
“It’s a cascading series of effects, now that things are calmer medically,” said Mary Cianflone, grants and accounting administrator at the Albuquerque-based nonprofit Pegasus Legal Services for Children. “When there’s a crisis like COVID-19, we as a society are moving to put out fires. What’s happening now, if you’ve ever seen a house post-fire, is that it’s waterlogged and in pretty rough shape. The kids are still suffering because a lot of their needs got brushed under the rug for a couple of years during the medical crisis.”
For Cianflone, pre-pandemic Pegasus rarely had a wait list for its kinship guardianship program. Kinship guardianship refers to instances in which a parent is unable or unwilling to care for a child, so a blood relative or other adult with whom they have a family-like relationship steps in to take the role. As of mid-February, the organization was backlogged five months for those services. Even that is a significant drop from the eight-month wait that existed just months ago. Cianflone said that grants from partners like Blue Cross and Blue Shield New Mexico (BCBSNM) have made it possible to reduce the wait times as quickly as Pegasus has.
BCBSNM recently awarded Pegasus a $20,000 grant through its Healthy Kids, Healthy Families® initiative. The grant supports Pegasus’ array of free, bilingual civil legal services to low-income households that otherwise could never afford legal support — households with incomes as much as 300% percent of federal poverty guidelines. Pegasus clients are children and youth up to age 25. In some situations, attorneys represent the parents on behalf of the children’s interests. Pegasus’ mission is to provide safe and stable homes, quality education and health care, and a voice in decisions about their clients’ lives.
“That funding from BCBSNM enables us to be nimble and to be available to serve the client that just shows up at our door in an emergency,” Cianflone said. “It means if a lawyer needs to take a case, they can just take it.”
The case of 8-year-old Sam, whose name has been changed for privacy, is one example. Pre-pandemic, Sam’s parents struggled with addiction but made progress in their recovery. Then, one of Sam’s parents died suddenly from cancer, leaving his remaining parent not only grieving but struggling to stay sober. Realizing the depth of the addiction, the parent placed Sam in the care of his grandparents.
However, legal custody of a child, even if temporary and uncontested, is not automatic by virtue of the wishes of the parent. The family still must take formal legal action through the courts to ensure a legal guardianship, which allows the grandparents (or other relative) to make decisions on behalf of Sam’s best interest, such as schooling and medical care. As a result of Pegasus’ representation, legal guardianship was granted to Sam’s grandparents as Sam’s parent works on sobriety with the hope of being reunited.
“This is the type of case Blue Cross’ funding helps to support,” Cianflone said. “But because our lawyers are so collaborative, if Blue Cross money is paying for one of our lawyers, they’re really touching every case that we’re working — from child abuse cases to legal emancipation, to name changes for transgender youth.”
The need has never been greater across the board at Pegasus, Cianflone said, but the kinship guardianship program has seen the greatest demand since 2020.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center recently reported that from 2020-2022, 7%, or 33,000, of New Mexico children lived in kinship care, up from 6%, or about 30,000, from 2018-2020. That’s double the national average of 3%. The organization also states that New Mexico has some of the highest numbers of vulnerable children, including 11% living in extreme poverty, compared to a U.S. average of 7%. Seventeen of every 1,000 children are confirmed by Child Protective Services as victims of maltreatment, compared to the U.S. average of nine per 1,000. Many incidents are never reported, so the numbers don’t reflect the scope of the problem.
“Poverty, food scarcity, domestic violence, family insecurity, addiction — these may not seem on their face like the kinds of issues a health provider would tackle,” said Janice Torrez, BCBSNM president. “However, these are key social determinants of health for vulnerable young people in New Mexico, and we strongly believe in supporting local programs that address them, such as advocacy, housing, education and mental health. By providing such comprehensive legal services at no cost, Pegasus is making an impact on many of the underlying causes of health inequities and barriers to care in our community.”
Even the children who did not lose a parent or caregiver directly to the pandemic are impacted by its overload on community resources, Cianflone said. Backlogged courts, strained classrooms, overtaxed foster care services, and difficulty getting medical assistance compound the issues facing New Mexico children and support organizations like Pegasus.
“We’re so grateful to BCBSNM because getting the grant from such a big name is helping us educate our donors and the public about how legal protections really are basic needs,” Cianflone said. “There are real physical and mental health implications associated with these choices.”