ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Teddy bears, blankets, crayons, games and a safe place to sleep.
New Mexico’s top officials wanted to pack as much as possible into a new center created in hopes of easing the trauma often experienced by children when authorities are forced to remove them from their homes and place them in protective custody.
Gov. Susana Martinez and Children, Youth and Families Secretary Monique Jacobson on Friday toured the center in Albuquerque. They showed off a brightly-colored play area and separate rooms for sleeping, relaxing and playing — each designed as a mini oasis for kids who are going through a tough time.
Until now, social workers have had few options other than unaccommodating office space.
Children are sometimes taken in during the middle of the night when there are no foster families available. Some come in hungry with only the clothes on their backs.
A former district attorney, Martinez said it can be an unsettling experience for a child.
“They’re not sure what will happen next, where they’re going to go, who they’re going to be with, whether it’ll be for a short period of time or a long period of time,” the governor said. “This sort of facility makes it more comfortable.”
The idea for the center has been percolating for years. Multimillion-dollar proposals fell through to purchase a building where the agency could create a so-called wellness center where children could await foster care or where families could work on being reunited.
As lawmakers grappled with a budget crunch, funding for such an effort was pushed even further out of reach.
Jacobson said establishing a welcoming place for children in the state’s largest metropolitan area was still a priority given the demand. As many as 900 children a year are taken into protective custody in Bernalillo County alone. Statewide, that number tops 2,600.
With about $118,000, the agency revamped space it currently rents inside a towering office building on Albuquerque’s east side, not far from one of the busiest intersections along historic Route 66.
The area is fenced, providing social workers secure access when they bring children to the building. Instead of marching through dark office corridors and having to hop an elevator, a special entrance leads right to the center.
Inside, there’s a kitchen stocked with food from a local co-op, toys are stacked along the walls of the main room and separate rooms line the north side. The Albuquerque-based architecture firm Dekker/Perich/Sabatini volunteered to design the space and employees donated many of the fixtures.
One wall is covered floor to ceiling with books, backpacks and stuffed animals. Employees with the state Department of Finance and Administration teamed up to pay for 200 packs, while a local woman donated handmade blankets for the children. In the back, there are bags of lotions, soaps, toothpaste and other essentials.
Martinez said despite the budget crunch, the community made the center a reality.
“People don’t know what happens to a child who is taken into care,” she said. “If you tell the stories, then there’s a clear understanding of the need and then people can figure out how they can participate.”
In other parts of the state, Jacobson said improvements are underway to make agency offices more accommodating. In Las Cruces, construction will begin soon on a new space.