New Mexico is called the “Land of Enchantment.” It is known for its desert and mountain landscapes, Southwestern culture, flavorful cuisine, and outdoor adventure. It offers a laid-back lifestyle and unique atmosphere, according to Julia Burris, director of MCH Family Outreach in Albuquerque and a longtime resident of the city.
“New Mexico is diverse,” Burris said. “The landscape is diverse. You can see snow, desert, mountains, trees, and lakes all in the same day. And the people are diverse. Some statistics will frame this as a challenge, but I choose to see this as a strength. The people raised here often embrace diversity. Many people you meet throughout the state are down-to-earth, authentic and kind people who want to make a difference and make their community stronger.”
With all that it offers, unfortunately there is another side to New Mexico. Statistics show families in the state are struggling. One in five families in New Mexico live in poverty (earning just $24,300 for a family of four in 2016), according to New Mexico Voices for Children, an advocacy group in the state. This is the next-to-worst poverty rate in the nation. Data also show New Mexico to be ranked 49th in overall child well-being and last in the nation for high school graduation rates.
Methodist Children’s Home identified the extreme need in New Mexico and opened two offices to serve families in its communities. The office in Albuquerque opened in 1982 to offer supportive services and Las Cruces, one of the newest MCH Family Outreach offices, opened in 2016. Each office offers families early intervention and preservation services including case management, in-home visits, and parenting support. Case managers walk alongside families as they build on their strengths and connect them to community resources in order to help them improve their situations.
“MCH works very hard to create consistency across offices, and I feel blessed to be a part of this united culture,” Burris said. “Naturally, New Mexico does differ in culture from Texas. Our demographics differ, and I believe many New Mexicans suffer from firsthand or vicarious trauma from living in or witnessing extreme poverty and the many consequences of it. This reality makes me all the more grateful for MCH and the agency’s true ability to offer hope to our families and our communities.”
Burris said poverty is a common problem for the families MCH serves. Some have difficulty obtaining employment or getting connected to resources, and others are limited by language barriers. MCH also serves many grandparents or other relatives who are raising children after biological parents couldn’t.
“Unfortunately, New Mexico has shockingly high rates of substance abuse and addiction, which is one of the reasons many biological parents are unable to raise their children, leading fictive kin to step in,” she said. “New Mexico has limited resources to help these caregivers complete petitions for guardianship of the children. There is also an increased need as individuals may not be able to understand the legal documents to pursue guardianship.”
In New Mexico, caregivers without guardianship have limited rights in making decisions for children, as well as restricted access to government benefits. Magdalena, a grandmother in Las Cruces served by MCH Family Outreach, came face-to-face with these challenges when she became primary caregiver for her four granddaughters.
Magdalena’s Story: Support during the Unexpected
Magdalena first realized a problem when she found her 12-year-old daughter acting strangely outside one day. She discovered her daughter was using drugs and sent her to a rehabilitation center. Despite the efforts of Magdalena, who was raising the girls on her own after their father died, her daughter continued to battle with drugs into her adulthood.
Magdalena received custody of her first two granddaughters, Galilea and Kleventyne, in 2016 when they were 8 years and 3 weeks old, respectively. After a referral from New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD), Magdalena connected with MCH Family Outreach in Las Cruces to receive support and learn new parenting skills through the Gap program.
“I didn’t know I would have more babies so I was not prepared,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I was a good mother. They are my babies. I don’t feel like a grandma. I feel like their mom. I want to make sure I do a good job with them.”
While working with MCH, Magdalena became connected with others experiencing similar situations in an MCH Caregiver Empowerment Group. Magdalena was a frequent participant and felt encouraged by her peers.
“Talking with other grandparents makes me feel like I’m not alone,” she said.
Her case closed at MCH, and over time her participation in group decreased. However, in March 2019, Magdalena returned to MCH Family Outreach after receiving custody of two more granddaughters, Ahmusicka, now 2, and Klarasse Belle, 8 months old. In order to care for the children, she had to resign from her job. The children were also drug exposed, leaving her to worry about their health.
Tiffany Gonzales, director of MCH Family Outreach in Las Cruces, was ready to help. She connected Magdalena and the girls to a local early intervention service that could identify any developmental delays. They discovered Ahmusicka had tactile issues that were causing her to be fearful of objects such as grass and trees. Her issues were related to her sight, and a prescription for glasses helped.
Gonzales also got a three-child stroller for Magdalena so she could more easily transport the girls to doctors’ appointments or church. Before she had the stroller, Magdalena and the children rarely left home unless they had help from her friend, Phylip, or other daughter, Lupita.
Although Magdalena had power of attorney for the children, she realized her decision-making rights were limited. Gonzales connected her with legal services to help her obtain guardianship of the girls. With guardianship, Magdalena is able to make medical decisions for the children, enroll them in school on her own, and have access to food assistance. Magdalena is dedicated to caring for her grandchildren, and their situation is improving.
“I want them to be safe and have a healthy lifestyle growing up,” she said. “Unfortunately, their parents aren’t able to provide that and are toxic for the babies. I ask God to give me a long life so I can see them grow up and go to college.”
Gonzales said she is proud of Magdalena’s efforts to provide for her grandchildren despite her challenges.
“She is amazing,” Gonzales said. “She empowers me in my role and brings out my passion for this job. She helped me reflect on grandparents and how deep and meaningful their relationship is with their grandchildren. Grandparents are special and I tell her that all the time.”
*Portions of this interview were done with a translator.
Victoria’s Story: Overcoming Addiction
There are many inspiring stories of strong families served by MCH who were able to change their lives, Burris said. She has also seen people overcome addiction to reach full recovery to create a good life for their children. Victoria is one of those people.
Victoria is the mother of three children: Isaac, 13; Alyssa, 7; and Madison 3. Drug addiction plagued her life for many years, and her children were all being cared for by others. Her son, Isaac, lives with his father out of state. Alyssa was being raised by Victoria’s father. When Victoria lost custody of Madison last year, CYFD placed her into a foster home. Victoria had to stay sober for six months in order to have a chance of getting Madison back, but she kept relapsing. She said she knew she wasn’t able to provide her daughter with a good home during that time.
“I felt like my daughter was in a good place, like God had intervened,” she said. “I realized I had been an inappropriate parent for a long time and I was coming to terms with that.”
Victoria was allowed visits with Madison but was told she would lose rights to her daughter in February 2019. In her despondency, she began using drugs heavily and spiraled out of control.
“One day I just snapped out of it and thought, ‘this is horrible,’” she said. “I thought, ‘I would rather be dead.’ I didn’t want to go to visits high anymore. I didn’t want to put my daughter through that. I didn’t know how to bond with her in that situation, but I desperately wanted that before she was taken from me.”
Victoria checked herself into a rehabilitation hospital in September 2018 and began a parenting class, called Circle of Security, taught by an MCH case manager. She said it was an eye-opening experience. In the first session, the class watched a video demonstrating a child’s desire for connection.
“Within the first ten minutes of the video, I was in tears,” Victoria said. “It was so much about things I needed to learn. I didn’t know how to play with my kids or talk to them. I was just always making sure they looked OK so when I sent them out, people wouldn’t know I was messed up.”
Victoria’s father asked her to move in with him and Alyssa, her oldest daughter. Going to classes and therapy helped her through the transition as she recovered from addiction while learning to bond with Alyssa. Although she knew her time with Madison would soon end, she hoped she could connect with her before it was over using the tools she learned from the parenting class.
“It’s crazy how fast she was drawn to me,” Victoria said. “She hadn’t let me hold her before and I wanted so bad for her to kiss or hug me. Then one day she came up and held me and I’ll never forget that.”
When the time came for Victoria to lose rights to Madison, she was accepted into the Family Solutions program at MCH Family Outreach. Victoria knew she would need extra support during that time to make sure she didn’t relapse. But the unexpected happened. Madison’s foster father was arrested on felony charges, making him ineligible to serve as a foster parent. Victoria fought in court for custody of her daughter, and won.
“I knew it was a God thing,” Victoria said. “I knew He prepared me to be the person that would be able to care for her.”
During visits with Jannette Orozco, her MCH case manager, Victoria learned tools to help her care for the girls through Trust-Based Relational Intervention, a trauma-informed parenting curriculum. Victoria and her two daughters learned to play and care for each other during nurture group activities led by Orozco. Victoria now feels more confident in her relationship with the girls.
“Every time I remember to use some of those tools, I feel like I win at getting a little bit closer to them,” she said. “It feels like those are opportunities for us to get a closer connection.”
Victoria is rebuilding her life. She is employed and enrolled in college. She has a stable and happy home with her father and two daughters. She celebrated one year of sobriety in September 2019.
“I feel so grateful for the program and think it is so necessary,” she said. “I feel like I wouldn’t have maintained my recovery without the tools MCH offered. It is so important in my life.”
Orozco called Victoria “strong and resourceful,” and she was glad to witness the family heal.
“I am super proud and I was so happy to be part of her journey,” Orozco said. “I got to see so much growth in such little time, and I’m so grateful she allowed me into her home. I got to see her connect with the girls and it was so special.”
Joining Forces for Change
In order to better meet the needs of families in communities in New Mexico, MCH Family Outreach forms partnerships with like-minded agencies. MCH Family Outreach in Las Cruces collaborates with the Third Judicial Court Self-Help Center, which assists families in completing guardianship petitions. They also aligned with Las Cruces Public School’s Early Head Start program to offer parenting classes on-site while providing meals to families. Staff lead a parenting class for incarcerated women at the Dona Ana County Detention Center.
MCH Family Outreach in Albuquerque collaborates with Pegasus legal services for guardianship. They partner with Dierson Charities, a residential treatment center for prisons, to offer parenting classes. Recently, the office hosted a networking event to bring together representatives from local agencies to open doors to future collaborations as well as nurture present partnerships. Participants included members from CYFD, Dierson, a homeless teens coalition, the public school district, and a respite care center.
“I believe this forum give us an opportunity to meet other people to where we can work together to align our services to strengthen the community,” said Nancy Davenport, a representative from Albuquerque Public Schools who attended the event. “We’ve got to work together to make a difference.”
Burris is hopeful their efforts can make a positive impact on their state.
“There are dozens, if not hundreds, of bleak statistics about our state,” Burris said. “And there is definitely struggle. However, New Mexico is also a very strong and resilient state. MCH is part of a strong community of helping professionals dedicated to serving New Mexicans, especially our children. An awareness of prevention services and evidence-based, trauma-informed services has given many New Mexicans hope that better tomorrows lie ahead.”