Conversations with the state’s new cabinet secretaries, By Searchlight Staff
SANTA FE — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has made her commitment to children a mainstay of her next four years in office. By every metric, New Mexico is considered the worst state in the nation to be a child, and the governor has pledged that her administration will change that awful statistic.
Change begins with her newly appointed secretaries, those charged with affecting the lives of the state’s 517,000 kids. Searchlight New Mexico recently spoke with each one of them about how they intend to move the needle.
Mariana Padilla, Children’s Cabinet. From foster parent to children’s czar.
Mariana Padilla supervises coordination between every department that touches on the lives of children in New Mexico. She is the newly appointed director of the Children’s Cabinet, a department that was reintroduced by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham after years of lying dismantled by her predecessor. It’s a position that wields great influence — not least because it affords direct access to the governor.
Padilla taught elementary school in the Albuquerque Public Schools. With a graduate degree in community planning, she headed Lujan Grisham’s New Mexico congressional office for six years. Padilla is the mother of three young girls, all of whom attend public school in Santa Fe. She grew up in the South Valley of Albuquerque, where her parents — both schoolteachers — still live.
Searchlight New Mexico: This job comes with a lot of excitement and a lot of expectations. Did you realize that going in?
Mariana Padilla: Absolutely. I understand how important it is, the responsibility it puts on me. And I’m really excited to have this job — especially for this governor. She’s made it very clear that we’re tackling the problems of children in this state, that we’re doing everything we can.
SNM: We’ve had a Children’s Cabinet before — under Gov. Bill Richardson — and it wasn’t all that effective. How will your cabinet be different?
Padilla: The first way it’s different is that this governor has elevated the position to the executive office.
SNM: You’re referring to the fact that the first Children’s Cabinet was assigned to the lieutenant governor’s office?
Padilla: Yes, that’s right. I’m in the governor’s office, working directly with her and the rest of the leadership team. We’ll be collaborating with community-based organizations and youth groups. This is not an initiative that’s done just by state government. This is about engaging all our partners and rebuilding those relations.
SNM: What has prepared you for this job?
Padilla: I’ve done many things in my life that brought me here. My husband and I were foster parents with CYFD [the state’s Children, Youth & Families Department]. I became interested when I was a teacher, I knew the challenges my students were going through, and I found it one of the best ways I could contribute on a very basic level to the children who most need it. It gave me an insight into our child protective-services system — what works and what doesn’t. It’s really one of the best things I’ve done.
SNM: It’s still early in your term, but is there something concrete you’ve already accomplished?
Padilla: I’ll tell you that HSD [Human Services Department] and CYFD are tackling updates to their IT systems, making sure they’re coordinating their efforts so they share data and take advantage of federal funding and resources.
Another example is the Preschool Development Grant. The state applied for a federal grant, and it was awarded $5.4 million for early learning in New Mexico. Over the next year, the Children’s Cabinet is going to work with all the agencies that oversee early childhood programs — CYFD, PED [Public Education Department], the Department of Health — to develop a statewide needs assessment for early learning.
SNM: A big problem is that many state agencies are deeply, almost tragically underfunded.
Padilla: That’s true. We have staffing shortages in each of our state agencies. That’s a challenge. When you don’t have enough people to do the work it’s difficult to do it at the level you really want it to be done. It’s in the executive budget to identify funding for CYFD to hire around 100 new employees.
SNM: A lot of the power of your job lies in the fact that you have the governor’s ear. Can you talk about your relationship with her?
Padilla: Our paths crossed in 2012 when she was running for Congress. I thought she was incredibly smart and that she had a very clear idea about what she wanted to accomplish. Plus, she was an Hispanic woman, which was also very special to me. When she won, I knew she was hiring — I went in and had a conversation with her. I didn’t even know what I was interviewing for.
We work well together and trust each other’s opinions. She’s one of the fiercest advocates I’ve ever seen.
SNM: Is there one issue that you see as the No. 1 priority?
Padilla: It’s all important. I think our investment in early learning, getting that right, is very important. I’m also very interested in our foster care system, looking at our children’s code, to make sure we’re doing things the best way possible. And bullying — the governor has made it very clear that that’s a priority.
SNM: You have three young daughters. Do they have advice for you in your new job?
Padilla: They have opinions about everything. And they have a sense of ownership. They are very aware that there are children who need help — whether it’s a home or access to health care or food. And as much as I’m working long hours, and they miss me, they have let me know that they also are aware that my work is important.
Karen Trujillo, Public Education Department. “In my new position what we’re trying to do is change the narrative of what it means to be a teacher.”
Karen Trujillo, the newly appointed secretary of New Mexico’s Public Education Department, comes from a long line of teachers. She taught math at Las Cruces High School, served as principal at Las Cruces Catholic School, and was, until recently, the interim associate dean of research at New Mexico State University’s College of Education.
Across the state, she is perhaps best known for her advocacy work, encouraging young students to become teachers. It’s in that spirit that she served as state director of Educators Rising, a national organization for aspiring teachers. According to Trujillo’s own study, there were 1,173 educator vacancies last year. So she clearly has her work cut out for her.
Searchlight New Mexico: You have spoken publicly about how young people are actively discouraged from entering the teaching field — not just by their parents but by teachers and job counselors. Were you similarly discouraged?
Karen Trujillo: I was a math major in university, and I had most of my classes with engineering students. And I got lot of pushback: “Why don’t you become an engineer? Why do you want to be a teacher?” By that point I was pretty committed. I come from a family of teachers. My mom and three of her sisters were teachers. Five cousins and myself, we all ended up teachers.
SNM: One of the big problems, here and everywhere, is keeping good teachers in the classroom. You yourself left after eight years. What can be done to keep teachers engaged and satisfied?
Trujillo: My cousins have been in the classroom for 20 years and they’re still invigorated. I think the key to that longevity is having a network of colleagues. Plus always doing something new — to engage in continued learning.
SNM: Do you ever miss the classroom?
Trujillo: I do miss the classroom. But I was very intentional. I knew my goal was to transition to the university, but I didn’t want to be someone who hadn’t been in the classroom for 20 years. I wanted that reality check. So in 2010 I went back for a year to Alma [D’Arte Charter High School, in Las Cruces] and I really enjoyed it.
SNM: The state struggles with a huge number of teacher vacancies, especially in science, math, bilingual education and special ed. What are school districts supposed to do?
Trujillo: That’s the million-dollar question! At NMSU, we’re trying to figure out how to identify those students, especially in the STEM areas — biology, chemistry and math — where the students may be too far along in their degree work to change but already know they don’t want to work in a lab. So it’s a matter of identifying those students to say, “Hey have you ever thought of being a teacher?”
SNM: What can you do as PED secretary that you couldn’t do at NMSU?
Trujillo: In my new position what we’re trying to do is change the narrative of what it means to be a teacher. Instead of all the negative things, we want to focus on the fact that you can be creative, make a difference, give back to your community, and make a good living. At this level, it’s just changing the narrative — that teaching is a positive choice.
SNM: I recently read a statistic from the New Mexico Department of Health — that 50 of every 1,000 births in Socorro County are babies born with opioid dependency. How can the PED even begin to address a problem of this magnitude?
Trujillo: Drug abuse is an issue in New Mexico. Poverty is an issue. ACEs [adverse childhood experiences] are an issue. As awful as all that is, right now we are making an effort, not only in our department but across departments, to figure out how we can collaborate and work together. I think the creation of a new early childhood department will help us identify and respond early in a more coordinated effort. So much of the problem is not talking about it until it’s too late.
SNM: The Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit sought to address a lot of New Mexico’s educational failings. How will your department respond?
Trujillo: One of the things we’re very excited about is community schools, which would allow us to coordinate with cities, counties and nonprofits to provide wraparound services for kids through the schools. Our entire leadership team is based around that.
Another idea is fully funding and supporting the Indian Education Act. That means providing sufficient resources to native communities, honoring the identity of multicultural and multilingual aspects of those communities. To ask, what is important to you? And if the answer is to maintain their language, we can say, OK, here’s what we can do to help. To really engage communities to learn about their rich history. It goes back to that whole idea of changing the narrative — not just of being a teacher but what it means to be a New Mexican.
SNM: Countries with high-performing education systems typically pay their teachers a whole lot more than we do. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has proposed bumping up starting salaries to $40,000 for a beginning teacher. Is that enough?
Trujillo: The medium income in a lot of places in New Mexico, I believe, is in the mid-30s, so there are a lot of places where teachers are already the highest-paid professions. A $40,000 job is not easy to come by in New Mexico.
David Scrase, New Mexico Human Services Department. “The more people with health insurance, the healthier the population.”
David Scrase, the new secretary of New Mexico’s Human Services Department, has worn many hats — and stethoscopes — during his career. A physician for more than 35 years, he’s divided his time between boosting the health of patients and boosting the vital signs of major healthcare organizations.
He started out as an internist, branched into geriatric medicine and practiced both at the University of New Mexico Medical School. Frequently voted one of New Mexico’s “top docs,” he’s also been one of its top dogs. Among other jobs, Scrase, 66, has been the executive vice president and chief operating officer of Presbyterian Healthcare Services, the state’s largest healthcare organization.
Today, he’s in perhaps the most challenging role of all. The stated goal of the Human Services Department (HSD) is to help New Mexicans break the cycle of poverty. The state’s Medicaid program, which HSD administers, serves some 800,000 low-income residents – about 40 percent of the population. HSD also runs the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and many other lifelines, including behavioral and mental health services.
How will Scrase improve New Mexico’s vital signs? How does he approach life? He answered these and other questions during an hour-long interview at his Santa Fe office.
Searchlight New Mexico: You started out in internal medicine. What made you switch to geriatrics?
David Scrase: Can I draw you something? [He goes to a large whiteboard and sketches a graph.] This is happiness over time, okay? [He draws a V-shape.] You start up here when you’re 18, and you’re pretty happy. And then the happiness goes down, down, down until about age 53. After that, it keeps going up and up and up as you get older.
In my geriatric practice, I basically take care of this group of happy people. I find them wise and thoughtful and kind, and not quite so irritable, and not really sweating the small stuff.
SNM: I’ve always heard that after 50, happiness levels go straight down.
Scrase: Well, that’s probably why you asked why I wanted to be a geriatrician.
SNM: The governor has been in the healthcare orbit for years. Is that how you first met?
Scrase: The governor has given me permission to mention the fact that I have taken care of people in her family, and still do. I still make house calls and patient visits. I’ve known her through those encounters. And she’s an expert in health care, so I’ve encountered her that way, too. I first met her about 20 years ago.
SNM: When the governor first offered you the HSD job, was there an issue that made you think: “Oh, boy, fixing that is going to be impossible?”
Scrase: My outlook on life doesn’t usually include the concept of impossible. I tend to think in terms of opportunities. I mean, there’s an opportunity here to touch the lives of half of New Mexicans, at minimum. It’s pretty incredible. And there’s an opportunity to make sure — as our governor would like us to do — that every person who deserves benefits or is eligible for benefits can get them, and as easily as possible.
The more people we can get health insurance coverage for, the healthier the population. Right now, we’re looking at ways to enroll some of the 83,000 adults who qualify for Medicaid, but are not enrolled. There’s been no advertising, there’s been no outreach, there’s really been no attempt to enroll more people in a publicly visible sort of way in eight years.
SNM: You give lectures sometimes on mindfulness. What does that mean for you?
Scrase: I have a meditation practice that’s been going on for probably 18 years.
SNM: What is your meditation like?
Scrase: I get up every morning, I sit quietly and I read and journal for 15 minutes. My wife and I meditate together and just try to [he inhales and exhales deeply] start the day.
I have this theory — other people have written books about it — that we each have this bucket that we bring to work or bring to our lives; it holds all the things we have to offer others. It’s my job to make sure that bucket is full every day before I leave the house, so that I have enough to share with others during the day.
SNM: Are there new approaches you’ll take to solve longstanding problems — the opioid epidemic, for example.
Scrase: I think there’s a stigma that goes along with any kind of addiction, and that’s a barrier to recovery. I think there’s this idea that folks with addiction issues just need to be more responsible or something. That kind of thinking has really been a barrier. What I’d like to do is to effectively reach out to people, identify them and help them seek care.
SNM: How do you broadcast that kinder, gentler message?
Scrase [smiling]: That’s why you’re here.
Brian Blalock, Children, Youth & Families Department. “Would you make it on your own without help? Probably not.”
With New Mexico’s deeply embedded problems of child poverty, trauma, and other barriers to child well-being, Brian Blalock, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s pick to lead the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, is stepping into what is arguably the most consequential job in state government.
Blalock is entering the position after a career working on child welfare issues both as an attorney and, most recently, as the law and policy director of Tipping Point Community, a San Francisco nonprofit focused on poverty and homelessness.
Searchlight New Mexico: You’ve spent many years working on programs to end homelessness and pull families out of poverty. How will that work inform your approach to state government in New Mexico?
Brian Blalock: My past work has shown me that there’s always opportunity to collaborate across organizations and agencies. That’s especially important when we’re talking about super vulnerable populations, like individuals experiencing homelessness and at-risk kids and families. The real solutions happen across departments.
That also should apply to our thinking within state agencies. Here in CYFD, we have Juvenile Justice, Protective Services, Early Childhood and other specialized silos all existing under one roof. That’s a fantastic opportunity—different silos exist so that we can give increased attention and increased specialization. If we can think strategically about coordinating and collaborating between those different silos and between different agencies like HSD and DOH, we can make a lot of progress.
Also, in my in my nonprofit work I’ve had the chance to see quite a few jurisdictions try out programs and approaches that could possibly make sense for New Mexico.
SNM: What programs and approaches specifically do you think are worth looking at here?
Blalock: I’ll give you a few quick examples. One is this idea that if you really want to help super vulnerable, super traumatized youth, what you do is we have to build out community-based mental health services in a culturally competent way so that the youth and their families actually want to take advantage of them. We tend to make mental health services overly political and overly diagnostic at the front end, and we need to think about how to make those services actually attractive to youth as some states have done.
Another big one is extended foster care — extending the age that a youth is eligible for foster care services from 18 to 21. New Mexico is late to the game in looking at this, and it’s a program that has been shown to reduce homelessness, reduce incarceration and improve child well-being.
Think about where you were when you were 18. Would you have been able to be on your own without any help from your family, and been able to find your own housing, insurance and all that? For most people the answer is probably not—that’s a really tough spot to be in, yet that’s what we do for our kids when the state is the parent.
SNM: But how would you convince an 18-year-old to stay in foster care if they have the option of making their own rules and living without strict supervision?
Blalock: Sounds crazy, right? But I think 36 states have implemented extended foster care in the country, and those states have consistently underestimated the number of kids who would choose to participate in it.
The key is to implement it the right way — and with youth input. If we do it here, we really need to have transition-age youth leaders who can be our experts, based on their own experiences, and provide us with genuine policy input. States that have gotten this right have really emphasized that youth voice piece.
And maybe it doesn’t look like a traditional foster home — maybe it looks like an apartment for example, but where the youth have access to support from case managers and social workers until they’re 21.
The federal government gives us an option to help fund this kind of project, and right now we’re not opted in. It’s something we should take a look at.
SNM: There is a bill currently in the Legislature that would create a separate Early Childhood Education and Care Department, apart from CYFD. Do you think that’s a good idea?
Blalock: Right now, early childhood is very well integrated into all of the different components of CYFD — behavioral health care, infant mental health, juvenile justice and other programs that are already in place — and these programs require a fair degree of sophistication and collaboration.
Regardless of whether we build another department, I think we need to ask ourselves what, at this point, are we doing well and what are we not doing well when it comes to early childhood services. If and when we do pull all of those services into a new department, we just have to be really mindful that we are not creating more silos in places where we don’t actually want them or need them.
All that to say, creating a new department is going to be an intimidating lift and we just have to be sure that we’re solving more problems than we’re causing.
Kathleen Kunkel, Department of Health. “Re-creating our community behavioral health system” a priority.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s pick to run the Department of Health is a New Mexico attorney with a resume stacked with posts at the department and experience in the field of health care. Kathleen “Kathy” Kunkel has worked at DOH for seven years, serving as general counsel and, most recently, as deputy director. She studied social work before law and worked for the University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Center as a social worker for eight years prior to joining the Department of Health.
Kunkel says her first task is tackling problems in the division that is arguably the department’s most problematic: the Developmental Disabilities section, which is overwhelmed by a massive waiting list of families seeking services for their children. Kunkel spoke with Searchlight New Mexico in mid-February.
Searchlight New Mexico: What are your top three priorities for the Department of Health?
Kathleen Kunkel: It is abundantly clear to me that the priority for the Department of Health is the DD [Developmental Disability] waiver waiting list, which has 4,600 people waiting for services.
The Legislature and the executive branch have both asked for $1.5 million to create a supports waiver which would be more targeted to the needs of the people who are waiting. And the Department of Health has already begun developing some type of assessment tool, which will look at the individuals on the waiting list to see what is it that they really need. Conceivably, this waiver will offer a different array of services than the traditional waiver, and my directive is to get it done as soon as possible. It’s also my intention to involve all the stakeholders — that would be advocates, families, the Legislature — so that we don’t have a misstep and we produce something that everyone meets everyone’s needs and will be successful.
SNM: New Mexico currently provides numerous DD services to a narrow population, rather than serving more people with fewer, targeted services. Can you explain the difference between a “supports” waiver versus the “traditional” waiver?
Kunkel: The short answer is I don’t know what we’re going do but I think there has to be consensus. Whatever we do with the traditional waiver has to be something that’s carefully reviewed by all of the stakeholders, including the individuals who are on it. It’s not a simple problem. But I do not see the traditional waiver going away. I don’t know what sort of service array we’ll be offering on the supports waiver, but we will have to make it attractive enough that people want to take advantage of it and not wait 13 years for their time on the traditional waiver. I don’t want the public to be worried that their services are going to be cut. But what it looks like will not be a Department of Health decision alone.
SNM: What else is on your short list?
Kunkel: Rebuilding and re-creating our community behavioral health system. That is primarily the responsibility of the Human Services Department, but I share it. That is absolutely a priority.
SNM: What role should the Department of Health play in the opioid crisis, particularly in northern New Mexico? In Rio Arriba County right now — which has one of the highest rates of per capita addiction — there’s not even a detox center.
Kunkel: We have been approached by the Legislature to produce a comprehensive report on all of our efforts because there are many efforts being undertaken in the opioid crisis. And we have been approached by some legislators who are concerned about the lack of a detox center up there, as well. And I think all of those issues are being discussed in the session right now. In addition to that, the Department of Health is taking a position to add opiate addiction to the medical cannabis program; that will be heard in March under the administrative process.
SNM: There is a persistently high incidence of inadequate prenatal care among pregnant women in the border region. And when you look at the southwest border, New Mexico has some of the highest rates of inadequate prenatal care among the border states. How will the department address that disparity?
Kunkel: It is the southern counties in the state that we’re most concerned about. Their rate is below the national average for prenatal care. Age can have an impact on whether or not a woman seeks prenatal care, and if you’re under 20, the interest in perhaps concealing the pregnancy or not having Medicaid card or not having transportation impacts not seeking prenatal care. For women over 20, it can be the distance that someone has to travel to seek prenatal care and the long waits that they encounter.
The Department of Health is participating in a project called “Early Care, Strong Beginnings,” where, for women seeking a free pregnancy test, they’ll be given access to a web-based tool that helps them identify prenatal providers near them, provides them with referrals and practical information about accessing those services. That is a hopeful intervention. The Department of Health will be collecting data to determine how many of those women get prenatal care in the first trimester and how many had an appointment within the first three weeks of that pregnancy confirmation.