Bette Fleishman, JD, MA, Pegasus Legal Services for Children Executive Director sitting in an office surrounded by art and plants.

Grantee Stories – Pegasus Legal Services For Children

Bette Fleishman, JD, MA, Pegasus Legal Services for Children Executive Director sitting in an office surrounded by art and plants.

“We are the only place in New Mexico for children to get legal representation and support,” said Bette Fleishman, JD, MA, the Executive Director of Pegasus Legal Services for Children. Pegasus Legal Services for Children is a nonprofit agency that provides civil legal services to children, youth and their caregivers, including direct representation in the 2nd Judicial District and the specialized Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) court that serves New Mexico’s tribes and pueblos. “We are full-time client advocates,” said Fleishman. “I’ve had babies that are 1 day old that
become clients. We pride ourselves on being a voice for those who need it most — children and young people — protecting and advocating for rights that they don’t even know they have.”

Pegasus works to ensure that children’s needs and rights are taken into consideration in the development of state and local laws, policies and regulations. This past legislative session, the nonprofit successfully lobbied for Senate Bill 31, which amends the Family Services Act to recognize guardians.

Pegasus provides legal services to grandparents and other kinship caregivers taking care of children whose parents are unable or unwilling to provide them with proper care. “Let’s say a parent can’t take care of their child, so the child is being taken care of by their grandma. They are waiting for a court date for Grandma to be the legal guardian, but until that court date, CYFD can come to remove the child from that home at any time. There is now a nine-month backlog for these cases — it used to be zero,” said Fleishman.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis exacerbated an already complicated system. “Lots of kids became orphaned during the pandemic,” said Fleishman. According to a study by COVID Collaborative, New Mexico ranks as one of the states with the highest rates of parental deaths caused by COVID-19. “In addition to those who have had parents pass away, families are struggling to take care of their kids and need guardianship. It’s one of the hidden results of COVID,” she said.

While keeping families together as much as
possible is a goal, it isn’t always the best course of action for a young person, said Fleishman. “We also do emancipation for young people aged 16 and older. We're seeing more of those contested — parents contest it even though they can’t provide a safe home. With more violence and with the way everything is, representing the best interests of kids is the most important.”

Pegasus also works to address the structural problems that children and caregivers in New Mexico face when forced to navigate the child welfare system. Fleishman was appointed to the Children’s Code Task Force to look at the laws that protect children from abuse and neglect and deal with adoption and juvenile delinquency.

The organization is also working to reform the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department. “We have filed a class action lawsuit to seriously improve the CYFD system and implement meaningful reform for children in foster care. We are already four years into it. We are making good progress, but it’s going to take years,” said Fleishman.

Pegasus marked its 20th Anniversary in 2022. “There was no space for children to go before to be protected in this way. It’s been 20 years of kids having a safe place to go, having a place that celebrates young people and their rights, and supports them with the struggles they experience,” said Fleishman.