New Mexico committed to reforming its child welfare system, but it’s leaving some of its most troubled foster teens without the help they need.

This story contains descriptions of mental illness and self-harm.

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Hours after Jaidryon Platero attempted suicide, an employee of New Mexico’s child welfare agency visited the 16-year-old in the hospital to investigate whether he was a victim of child neglect.

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Platero winced whenever he turned his head, a sharp jolt of pain emanating from the stab wounds he’d left in his neck during a mental breakdown.

The teen needed mental health care and was unsafe living on the streets, the state child welfare investigator concluded in a report. Platero’s mother, whom he had been living with, couldn’t be located. He was taken into foster care and transferred to a psychiatric hospital.

About a week later, doctors there deemed him stable enough to be discharged. Platero gathered his belongings — a bag holding a change of clothes, a pamphlet from the American Association of Suicidology and a prescription for an antipsychotic drug — and climbed into a silver van emblazoned with the New Mexico state seal.

He hoped that the worker with the Children, Youth and Families Department would take him to his grandmother’s home near the oil and gas town of Farmington. Instead, they pulled up to a youth homeless shelter.

Platero would spend six months at the San Juan County Emergency Crisis Shelter, sleeping on a metal-framed bed with a thin foam mattress.

Facilities like this, known as children’s crisis shelters, are licensed to temporarily house kids with nowhere to go. They don’t provide psychiatric care. But they are home to some of the foster system’s highest-needs teens, an investigation by Searchlight New Mexico and ProPublica has found.

After Platero’s mental breakdown, he was placed at the San Juan County Emergency Crisis Shelter in Farmington, New Mexico.

It’s not supposed to be this way. Two and a half years ago, the state of New Mexico settled a landmark civil rights lawsuit, agreeing to place teens in foster homes or with relatives instead of emergency facilities such as youth shelters. The agreement also called for the state to reduce its reliance on residential treatment centers — troubled facilities that had become hotbeds of abuse and assault.

The state has fulfilled part of its agreement, largely by shutting down several residential treatment centers. Due in part to those closures, the number of children in group facilities, which includes shelters and residential treatment centers, has dropped by about 60% over the four years ending in August, according to the state.

But New Mexico has yet to build the system it promised: “a statewide, community-based behavioral health system that all children and families will be able to access.”

With few other options, child welfare workers place youth in crisis shelters hundreds of times every year. Some of these teenagers are suicidal, police records show. Others have such diagnoses as PTSD, depression or developmental disabilities.

These teens spend days, weeks or months in dorm-like facilities that don’t offer intensive mental health treatment, according to state records and interviews with shelter employees. Often, youth are abruptly moved to another shelter. And then another. Sometimes those moves are precipitated by a fight or a breakdown. Sometimes the kids run away.

Youth advocates and attorneys call it the “shelter shuffle.”

The state acknowledges this is a problem. Most of the 1,800 or so youth in foster care — which encompasses all children in custody of CYFD’s protective services office — live with foster families in their own communities, said Rob Johnson, public information officer for CYFD, in a written statement. “However, a small number require a higher level of care that, in some circumstances, is currently not available in New Mexico,” he said.

To understand how this plays out, Searchlight and ProPublica interviewed staff at the nine facilities in New Mexico that house the vast majority of foster teenagers at shelters, as well as CYFD officials, current and former frontline child welfare workers, law enforcement, children’s attorneys, child advocates and current and former foster youth.

The toll on shelter residents is evident from records of hundreds of 911 calls made since 2019. Practically every day, someone at a shelter that accepts foster teens in New Mexico calls for help.

Some calls describe teenagers harming themselves or threatening suicide. Others involve youth who have attacked or threatened staff or other residents. Missing persons calls are frequent, often involving the same runaways again and again.

New Mexico is a window into challenges faced by many states dealing with a nationwide shortage of foster homes and a federal crackdown on residential treatment centers. Other states have turned to offices, hotels and sometimes shelters when no foster home is available. But the situation in New Mexico is particularly acute because the state ranks last in child welfare, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

New Mexico’s reliance on youth homeless shelters is not new. Though the state could not provide precise annual figures on shelter placements, shelter managers say they have seen more referrals for youth with severe behavioral problems since CYFD began closing residential treatment centers.

“We now have the kids most in need of help in the facilities least equipped to help them,” said Dr. George Davis, the former director of psychiatry for CYFD and a plaintiff in the Kevin S. lawsuit, as the civil rights suit became known.

The state said it has created new services like coordinated, family-driven care plans and has funded additional community health workers in an attempt to fill the gap in mental health services, which it attributes to the closure of more than a dozen behavioral health care providers after the state froze their funding in 2013.

“Building out a full array of children’s behavioral health services in communities across the state from an essentially non-existent system takes time — but we are building it,” Johnson said in a written statement.

Children’s attorneys said the new initiatives reach few kids, and not the ones who need the most help.

“We’re still at square one,” said Sara Crecca, an Albuquerque-based children’s attorney who was co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the Kevin S. suit. “It’s really, really, really frustrating because these young people deserve so much better.”

Platero experienced these failures firsthand. When he arrived at the shelter, he was immediately placed on suicide watch. Instead of sleeping in the dorms, he’d be on a mattress on the floor of the common room, where an employee could keep an eye on him through a window.

“I'm sitting in there like, ‘When am I going to get out?’” Platero said. “‘How long do I have to be here?’”

“It makes me be hella thankful for what I have right now, knowing that I went through that,” Platero said of his experience with CYFD.

“Jaidryon, Stay With Me, OK? You’re OK. We’re Here to Help You.”

In the weeks before his breakdown, Platero and his mom were staying at a Motel 6 in Farmington. The two of them had run into trouble for drinking at a local park, police records show, and Platero had been caught smoking marijuana in a high school bathroom.

He had begun smoking a synthetic cannabis compound called Spice, which he suspects was laced with methamphetamine. He was becoming paranoid, shivering through freakish hallucinations and convinced that others at the motel would hurt him and his mother.

His grip on reality slipping, one afternoon he grabbed a large knife from his motel room and darted through traffic. Sheriff’s deputies and police chased him onto a nearby ranch, scattering turkeys as they ran. As night fell, he stood holding the knife to his throat, a police helicopter with a spotlight circling above.

When a sheriff’s deputy fired a series of beanbag rounds at Platero, he stabbed himself over and over. Officers rushed him, firing their tasers and knocking him onto his back.

Farmington Police Officer Cierra Manus, a crisis negotiator, cradled his head as he lay in the grass. “Jaidryon, stay with me, OK?” she said. “You’re OK. We’re here to help you.”

Platero was staying with his mother at a Motel 6 in Farmington when he ran outside into traffic holding a knife. Farmington Police Department crisis negotiator Cierra Manus responded to the call.

He was loaded into an ambulance and taken to a local hospital. Miraculously, he required only minor treatment for his wounds. A deputy who had responded to the scene called CYFD to report a case of possible child neglect.

In the span of nine days, Platero went from that hospital in Farmington to a psychiatric hospital across the state with an open bed, then to the youth shelter a few miles from where he had his breakdown.

Two psychological evaluations, including one four days after he arrived at the shelter, concluded that Platero needed intensive care and recommended he enter a residential treatment program. Though he was a “likeable young man” and a “resilient adolescent,” a psychologist noted, he had a history of making suicidal statements. He was diagnosed with substance abuse disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.

About a month after Platero entered foster care, his caseworker began looking for a bed in a residential treatment center. Platero, however, didn’t want to enroll in such a program; he wanted to go to his grandmother’s nearby on the Navajo Nation or, failing that, a foster home.

Platero said he hopes other teens will benefit from learning about what he went through — “to not feel alone.”

Platero’s grandmother couldn’t physically care for him, a CYFD worker wrote in his case plan. No foster homes were available, according to his attorney.

By the time Platero was taken into state custody in August 2019, the number of residential treatment beds in New Mexico was shrinking. A new governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, had been elected the previous fall on a platform of reforming the state’s child welfare system.

Fourteen foster youth had filed the Kevin S. suit, which accused the state of cycling foster kids through emergency placements such as shelters and residential treatment centers in violation of their civil rights and federal law. And Congress had enacted a law designed to limit the use of residential treatment centers, which have been tied to injuries, deaths and sexual assaults.

Between 2019 and 2021, three New Mexico residential treatment centers closed under pressure from the state. Several others shut down on their own during the pandemic. Now, aside from tribal facilities, three residential treatment centers with just 74 beds are left to house teens without histories of violence or sexual offenses.

CYFD began the closure of Desert Hills, the state’s largest residential treatment center, in December 2018 after investigators uncovered serious safety violations.

Meanwhile, teenagers who might otherwise have been placed in residential treatment centers have been referred to shelters, according to managers of those facilities.

“All we have left is shelters,” said Brooke Tafoya, chief executive officer of New Day Youth and Family Services. There are few residential treatment centers left, “and we barely have any foster placements,” she said. “So young people are in shelters and in offices and on the streets.”

Managers of shelters like the New Day Youth and Family Services shelter in Albuquerque say they are dealing with more severe mental health needs since the closure of many of New Mexico’s specialized residential treatment centers.

“We Have Nowhere for Them to Go”

New Mexico has agreed to use shelters as foster placements only in “extraordinary circumstances,” according to the Kevin S. settlement. Three current CYFD employees, however, said workers are under relentless pressure to find a bed — any bed — for kids in state custody.

Those employees asked not to be identified because they fear retaliation.

Across the U.S., there’s a shortage of foster homes, and even fewer for teens. In New Mexico, the number of nonrelative foster homes willing to take teenagers has decreased 44% since 2018, according to CYFD.

Homeless shelters are one of the few options left for CYFD case workers, who contact one after another looking for a bed, according to children’s attorneys and the CYFD employees. If they can’t find one, the kids in their care typically sleep at CYFD’s main Albuquerque office, a nondescript building in an office park — sometimes for a night, sometimes longer.

If CYFD can’t find kids a bed, it typically sends them to sleep at the main CYFD office complex in Albuquerque. The photo on the right, taken in early 2022, shows a room in an office where kids were sleeping; it was taken by a CYFD employee assigned to supervise one of the youth housed there. Credit: Left: Kitra Cahana, special to ProPublica; right: provided to ProPublica by Sara Crecca

Bowen Belt, administrator of the San Juan County Juvenile Services Center, a complex that includes the shelter where Platero spent six months, has gotten those referral requests from CYFD.

The shelter was built in 2005 as a stopover for kids with nowhere to go, a place where police could drop off young people for no more than 72 hours while they tried to locate their families. Many other shelters have similar rules.

Shortly after opening, Belt said, CYFD staff started asking if the shelter could house kids who didn’t have foster homes. “I remember one of the first state-custody kids that we had was here well over a year, almost two years,” Belt said.

His facility is one of 10 emergency youth shelters across the state that are licensed to house teenagers in state custody. The shelters, which typically have about 15 beds each, are not medical facilities. Some offer counseling or therapy, but none are equipped for youth with severe mental health needs.

Employees at the San Juan County shelter try to make kids feel safe and comfortable, offering a video library and a foosball table in the co-ed lounge, a basketball court outside and chaperoned trips to nearby parks.

But the facility has a distinctly sterile feel. The walls are bare. Kids sleep in clusters of beds arranged in rooms without doors. Staff rotate between the shelter and the juvenile jail next door.

“We have long stays fairly frequently,” Belt said. “This isn’t somewhere that someone should live for weeks or months.”

Bowen Belt, the administrator of the San Juan County Juvenile Services Center, which includes the shelter where Platero spent six months

Managers at seven other shelters shared similar stories about teens being left with nowhere else to go.

According to a year’s worth of data for one shelter, 43% of CYFD placements stayed for more than two weeks. (A senior staffer at the shelter shared the data, which didn’t include any identifying information about residents, on the condition that the shelter not be identified, out of fear of retaliation by CYFD.)

Teens in CYFD custody make up the majority of residents in children’s crisis shelters across New Mexico, according to interviews with shelter managers.

“It breaks my heart when I have to take a teenager into custody,” said one of the CYFD employees who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Because I know we have nowhere for them to go. I know they’ll end up in a homeless shelter, and we’ll be trying in vain to find them a placement until they turn 18.”

CYFD Secretary Barbara Vigil acknowledged the difficulties workers face when trying to find beds for youth who otherwise may end up on the street.

“Our front-line workers are faced with very hard choices, and the first and foremost is to keep that child safe and secure in the moment,” she said in an interview. “We have to make very difficult decisions under extraordinary circumstances when a youth presents himself or herself to CYFD.”

CYFD initially provided figures showing shelter placements have dropped, but later acknowledged problems in the data. The department did not provide comparable data by Searchlight and ProPublica’s deadline.

But the agency acknowledges that it is placing too many kids in shelters. An appropriate stay in a shelter is “zero” days, said Emily Martin, head of CYFD’s protective services division: “Because it’s just another level of congregate care. It’s not family-based. It doesn’t always include the services that are needed.”

However, Johnson wrote, “CYFD does not impose placements on any shelter.”

Shelter managers agree, and sometimes they do refuse to accept placements — often because the teens were previously involved in some sort of altercation there or because the shelter is housing other high-needs youth who take a lot of staff resources.

Managers say they try to help kids placed at their shelters as much as they can, even though they’re not set up to deal with youth in need of psychiatric services. They accept many of those placements “because there is a need, and our job is to provide support to young people who are in need,” said Tafoya, of the New Day shelter.

Child welfare advocates like Leecia Welch saw this coming.

“If you close down facilities that are housing hundreds of kids and you haven’t done a detailed placement analysis of where the gaps are in your system and where you intend to place those children, it’s 100% predictable that they're going to end up in emergency shelters,” said Welch, deputy legal director for the advocacy group Children’s Rights, an organization that has pushed for federal foster care reform.

Sometimes teens head to shelters directly from psychiatric hospitals, like Platero did. At the one shelter for which data was shared, about 17% of the placements for one year came from such a hospital.

Professional assessments for more than a third of all the youth placed by CYFD at that shelter concluded they needed more intensive care, such as a residential treatment center or treatment foster care, a type of foster home that provides specialized care for traumatized youth.

“They go to Mesilla Valley and they’re there for days or weeks, then they’re deemed stable enough to be released,” Belt said, referring to one of the psychiatric hospitals in the state. “They still have these treatment needs, these mental health needs, just these basic life needs that no shelter is set up or equipped to meet.”

Calling 911 as a Last Resort

Without the staff or expertise to deal with youth in the midst of mental health crises, shelters often turn to the police.

Since 2019, there have been at least 465 calls to 911 regarding physical violence, disorderly conduct and mental health crises at the nine facilities that house most foster teens in shelters, according to a review of emergency dispatch records.

The records often don’t note whether a child is in CYFD custody, but shelter managers said most of their residents are in foster care.

At least 35 children have been the subject of 911 calls at three or more shelters, including reports that they had run away, in the same time period. At least 22 of them were wards of the state, according to dispatch records.

Last spring, staff at one shelter called police when a 13-year-old foster kid with a history of attempting suicide said he wanted to kill himself. The boy, who said he had been joking around, was placed in handcuffs and taken to a hospital emergency room, according to police records.

The next month, at a different shelter, the boy locked himself in a bathroom and attempted suicide, according to a sheriff’s department incident report.

Those calls are among more than 70 since 2019 involving youth whom callers or officers described as suicidal.

Police responded to multiple calls about one 14-year-old girl at two shelters over the course of four days. At a third shelter, she threatened staff and at least one other kid with a broken bottle and then slashed her own wrists. She was taken to a hospital.

Police bodycam footage shows first responders caring for a 14-year-old who had threatened staff and at least one other resident at the New Day shelter with a broken bottle. Image has been blurred by ProPublica to conceal the teen’s identity. Credit: Obtained by ProPublica and Searchlight New Mexico

Those records aren’t a complete picture of the continual crises in these shelters, according to managers. Staff are trained to de-escalate situations when a young person becomes angry, and they’re supposed to call police only as a last resort.

In some 911 recordings, employees describe fearing for their lives in the midst of a youth’s violent outburst.

In one case, a staff member climbed out a window to flag down officers as a 12-year-old girl tried to break down a door with a fire extinguisher, according to a dispatch call log and an audio recording.

“Does anybody else there need an ambulance?” the dispatcher asked.

“Not at this point, although we’re gonna need one pretty soon,” the caller said.

“For her?” the dispatcher asked.

“No, for us, if she gets in here.”

Often, kids’ mental health problems worsen in the shelter, according to employees.

Following one 911 call last year, a teenager at a shelter had to be taken to the hospital after drinking cleaning chemicals. Diagnosed with depression and PTSD, he had run away at least four times from previous shelters, records show.

According to a dispatch log of the call, the boy said he “does not want to harm himself, but said he needs to go to the hospital before he does.” The boy wasn’t from the area, according to the logs, “can not adapt and is stressed out.”

Davis, the former CYFD psychiatrist, said the problem isn’t just that these teens don’t have access to adequate mental and behavioral health care. It’s that living weeks or months in an emergency placement is itself destabilizing and traumatizing.

“What kids in this situation need is a caretaker, someone who gives them a safe home to live in and who thinks they are the most important person in the world,” Davis said. When those kids are placed in shelters, “trying to give them mental health care in that situation is useless.”

“I Needed Help”

More than a dozen young people who were once in the foster system told Searchlight and ProPublica they were exhausted and demoralized by the nonstop churn of temporary placements without any prospect for a permanent foster home.

So they ran away.

Living quarters at the Amistad Crisis Shelter in Albuquerque. When kids run away, staff pack up their belongings.

Since the beginning of 2019, at least 650 calls have been made to 911 to report runaways from shelters. Some kids return on their own within hours or days. Others are tracked down and brought back by CYFD staff or law enforcement.

In some cases, teens go missing for weeks or even months, police records show. Last year, a 16-year-old girl ran away from a shelter in Albuquerque. About a month later, a sheriff’s deputy found her with an older man outside the city. Her mother had told a police investigator her daughter was living in a house with men and drugs.

The girl was returned to the shelter by sheriff’s deputies. Less than 20 minutes later, she ran away again, according to the police incident report.

One day after school, about two weeks into his stay at the shelter, Platero decided he wasn’t going back. He walked past the school bus and headed toward town. He didn’t know where he was going; he said he hoped he could find his mom at one of their old hangouts.

Platero hasn’t seen his mother, Mathilda Silago, for approximately two years and has started to refer to her in the past tense.

Platero’s caseworker and another CYFD employee found him 11 days later at his grandmother’s house. “They’re like, we’re gonna call the cops if you don’t frickin’ go with us,” he said.

He hugged his grandmother and got in the car. He ran away again six months later, and again several days after that, building up a record in juvenile court along the way. All the while, he said, his drug problem deepened.

“I needed help,” Platero said. “My mentality was fucked up. I thought I was a lost angel; I looked at this place as hell and I thought I had to come up with my own gangster way of expressing myself to survive in this world.”

Finally, in October 2019, Platero agreed to enter a residential program. A bed had opened up at the Navajo Regional Behavioral Health Center, a facility run by the Navajo Nation in Shiprock that employs traditional healing methods to treat drug and mental health problems. He made it most of the way through the program before being kicked out for smoking marijuana.

The last time he saw his mother was when she visited the Shiprock treatment center. He started to walk away, but something told him to turn around and give her a hug.

“I’m so glad I did that,” he said. “I love her so much.” She later went missing and hasn’t been heard from since. He’s started referring to her in the past tense.

Platero spent six months at the San Juan County shelter, right, while in CYFD custody. He now has a subsidized apartment through New Day’s transitional living program.

After Platero was kicked out of the Shiprock treatment center, he spent four and a half months in shelters, another residential treatment center and a transitional living program.

Finally, after nearly two years of petitioning by his attorney, just shy of his 18th birthday, CYFD agreed to let Platero live with his grandmother.

He has since managed to get a subsidized apartment in Albuquerque, near the University of New Mexico. He’s gotten used to the scars on his neck. They’re reminders of how far he’s come. “I got something a lot of people don't get,” he said, “which is a second chance.”

“I wanted to age out the system, and I wanted to make my mom proud,” Platero said. “It sucks because I can’t really make her proud anymore.” His voice faltered. “I can’t see her beautiful face.”

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Kitra Cahana contributed reporting. Mollie Simon contributed research.