Many families and children in New Mexico would potentially have access to better lawyers and advocates working on their behalf as they navigate the state’s child welfare system under a bill passed unanimously recently by the state House of Representatives.
The measure, House Bill 46, sponsored by Albuquerque Democrats Rep. Gail Chasey and Sen. Linda Lopez, now awaits its fate in the state Senate as this year’s 30-day legislative session nears its Thursday conclusion.
Currently, the state relies on the Administrative Office of the Courts to appoint and compensate attorneys to represent families and children in the care of the Children, Youth and Families Department. In rural areas especially, lawyers with deep knowledge and interest in such cases are hard to come by at the going contract price, according to the department, often resulting in less than optimum legal representation.
That would be set to change under HB 46, which establishes a new, independent office with the resources to attract attorneys with deeper experience and interest in child abuse and neglect cases, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.
“Too many families navigating the child welfare system do not have knowledgeable and compassionate lawyers. The Office of Family Representation will change that,” said Rep. Chasey. “Now, skilled attorneys will help children and families when they need it most, ensuring better outcomes for all.”
The bill, which was slated for a Senate committee’s consideration Monday, would need to pass the full Senate soon to beat the clock on Thursday’s adjournment.
Meanwhile, a bill that would have made New Mexico the 26th state to prohibit life sentences with no possibility of parole for juveniles was suddenly pulled on Monday from further consideration for the year.
The bill passed the Senate last week but ran into trouble in the House. The sponsors, according to the Albuquerque Journal, said prosecutors and others critical of the bill had pushed for unacceptable amendments. Chasey and other Democrats said they plan to revive the measure in 2023.
The bill would have ensured that any juvenile sentenced as an adult — for murder or other serious felony offenses — would be eligible for parole after serving 15 years.