Albuquerque and New Mexico for the last 4 years have been shocked and haunted with the news of the tragic and brutal killing of children by their own parents. Media reports all too often have included reports where those children had fallen through the cracks of law enforcement and the New Mexico’s Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD).
Six of New Mexico’s most notorious child abuse and neglect cases are recalled in the postscript to this article below. All 6 cases shook New Mexico and dominated news cycles when they were first reported.
This article is a deep dive into New Mexico’s child abuse and neglect crisis and what the New Mexico Legislature and Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham are doing to confront the crisis.
HEART BREAKING DEATHS
From 2001 to August, 2016 no less than 22 children in New Mexico ranging from ages of 5 weeks old to 3, 4, 5 months old to 3, 4, 5, and 11 years old, have been killed as a result of child physical and sexual abuse. (Re: August 31, 2016 Albuquerque Journal Editorial Guest column by Allen Sanchez.) More child deaths have been reported since 2016, with the most recent being a 2-week-old baby found dead on July 7, 2019 with foul play suspected. The Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) responded to the scene and identified the baby’s injuries as suspicious. It was announced by the OMI that an autopsy on the baby was performed, but they could not determine the cause of death. APD detectives are interviewing family members as they investigate what caused the child’s injuries.
NEW MEXICO’S CHILD ABUSE RATE
A child abuse allegation is substantiated when it is determined that the victim is under the age of 18, a parent or caretaker has been identified as the perpetrator or identified as failing to protect the victim. Credible evidence must exist to support the conclusion of an investigation that the child has been abused or neglected as defined by the New Mexico Children’s Code. The types of child abuse under New Mexico criminal law are physical abuse, sexual abuse, and physical neglect.
The “child abuse rate” is the number of substantiated child victims per 1,000 children in a state during the state’s fiscal year. New Mexico’s fiscal year is July through June 30. In New Mexico’s 2018 fiscal year, the state’s child abuse rate was 15 meaning 15 children in every 1,000 children under the age of 18 in New Mexico were victims of abuse or neglect. In 2017, the rate was 25, in 2016 the rate was 17, in 2015 the rate was 18, in 2014 the rate was 16, and in 2013 the rate was 13 all rates higher than the national averages.
According to a report by the Children’s Bureau of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, New Mexico’s rate of child abuse and neglect has been far higher than the national average in each of the past 5 years for which data are available. In 2017, the state’s rate of maltreatment climbed to 17.6 victims per 1,000 children, or nearly twice the national average of 9.1. Only the 3 states of Kentucky, Indiana and Massachusetts had higher rates in 2017 according to the report. The state of West Virginia had the same rate as New Mexico.
OTHER DISGRACEFUL STATISTICS
As if the New Mexico’s rate of child abuse and neglect being twice the national average were not bad or disturbing enough, the rankings and financial numbers relating to New Mexico’s children are depressing and staggering with some downright disgraceful:
According to the just-released 2019 “Map the Gap” report from Feeding America, 24.1% of children and young teenagers age 18 and younger in New Mexico, or one of every four children, are at risk of childhood hunger and food insecurity. This makes New Mexico’s ranking dead last in the country. In 2018 the “Map the Meal Gap” also ranked New Mexico as dead last, and in the 2017, the state ranked 49th. New Mexico ranks 50th for at risk of childhood in hunger and “food insecurity.”
27% of New Mexico kids live in poverty, ranking New Mexico 49th on this list. A spokeswoman for New Mexico Voices for Children, said 27% of kids in our state live in poverty, ranking the state 49th on this list, tied with Mississippi, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Only Louisiana fares worse, ranked in 50th place with 28% of kids living in poverty.
75% of the state’s fourth-graders were not proficient in reading in 2017, compared to 65% nationally, and 80% of eighth-graders were not performing up to par in math in 2017, compared to 67% across the U.S.
You can read more on New Mexico’s disgraceful legacy of child hunger, illiteracy and well being at the below link:
2019 NEW MEXICO CHILD WELFARE LEGISLATION ENACTED
During the 2019 legislative session, which ended March, 15, 2019, the New Mexico Legislature struggled to enact child welfare legislation to protect New Mexico’s most innocent from child abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. Major legislation was enacted in an effort to reduce child abuse and neglect by providing services and employing a less punitive approach to families that clearly need help. All the legislation has been signed into law by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and the laws went in to effect July 1, 2019.
Following is a listing of the enacted legislation relating to child welfare reform as provided by the New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department:
House Bill 56: Prostitution as a Delinquent Act. All too often, children who are the victims of human trafficking are further traumatized by being arrested on prostitution charges. This bill decriminalizes prostitution by youths under 18 so they’re treated as victims who need services, not punished as delinquents. The child can be taken into protective custody, and their cases referred to the Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD). This bill will both help prevent criminal prosecution that traumatizes and ensure that the child receives the support and services they need.
House Bill 230: Plan of Safe Care. Medical studies show that prenatal drug use can significantly affect a developing fetus. Research indicates that non-punitive interventions have the most long-term benefits for the children and families. This bill brings New Mexico into line with federal requirements and will help ensure the child and their parents receive the support and services they need by giving caseworkers more options to protect the child. This measure calls for alerting CYFD whenever an infant tests positive for addictive substances. The goal is to allow CYFD to assess the family situation and provide help, without the opening of a formal abuse or neglect case. CYFD will be required to create a plan of care to help ensure the baby’s safety and address substance abuse by the caregiver. The legislation brings the state into compliance with federal requirements and make the state eligible for an extra $200,000 a year in funding.
House Bill 236: Attendance for Success Act. Among the factors which have a direct effect on a child’s educational success is their absentee rate. Studies show missing as few as two days a month can drastically affect a child’s likelihood of graduating. This bill updates the New Mexico truancy laws to establish a progressive approach to addressing a child’s absenteeism. As part of that process, CYFD will work closely with the schools, the child, and the family, to ensure that they are linked to appropriate community-based support programs and services.
House Bill 314: Children’s Advocacy Centers. Child Advocacy Centers are organizations that provide training, prevention, and treatment services to victims of child abuse and neglect, and their non-offending family members. The bill establishes the criteria that a Child Advocacy Center operating in New Mexico must meet, based on the same best practices criteria that a Child Advocacy Center must meet in order to become accredited through the National Children’s Alliance.
House Bill 376 : Creating “Alternative Response” System. This bill deals with what is known throughout the country as “alternative response” where certain reports of abuse or neglect are assigned to an alternative track rather than a formal criminal investigation or children being removed from their parents’ custody. This law establishes an “alternative response” system in New Mexico starting in July 2020.
The alternative response system will be available after the state conducts an initial evaluation after a report of abuse or neglect is made and finds that the child isn’t in immediate danger. The enacted legislation requires the state to assess the family situation and may offer or provide services, including counseling or training for parents, aimed at addressing the causes of the problem that affects the child.
If the family refuses to participate, the state can proceed with an investigation and criminal charges. Most maltreatment cases involve allegations of neglect, and in New Mexico, most neglect cases involve a caregiver with a drug or alcohol problem, according to analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC). The goal is to focus on prevention of abuse and neglect rather than prison punishment with providing services as an alternative to removing a child from a home. HB 376 was approved with bipartisan support.
Senate Bill 23: Services for Youth Leaving Foster Care. This bill provides extra services to help teens in foster care transition to adult life. Young adults who age out of foster care from 18 to age 21 will be able to enroll in to the program if they’re in college or participating in vocational programs, allowing them to continue to receive services through age 21. The phased implementation will begin extending services in July of 2021, allowing CYFD to ensure additional infrastructure is in place to fully support these newly-eligible young adults
Senate Bill 341: Transfer Complete Course Work. This bill works to ensure that a child’s educational achievements are not adversely affected by their involvement in the foster care system. It ensures that they receive full credit for all completed coursework regardless of their movement within the New Mexico primary and secondary school systems.
Senate Bill 251: Tuition and Fee Waivers for Foster Children. This bill expands the population of foster care children eligible for a full waiver of post secondary tuition and fees at state institutions to any child who was in either state or tribal foster care on or after their 14th birthday. This waiver supports the goal of SB 23 of ensuring that children in foster care have all practicable supports and services necessary to achieve their full adult potential.
On June 26, 2019, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham during her keynote address to the annual “Kids Count Conference” told the audience that that the one thing that has kept her up at night is when she learned that the state Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) receives hundreds more referrals based on child abuse and neglect allegations than it has the staff to handle. According to the Governor, the problem is being addressed by expanded hiring efforts to boost staffing and other temporary measures. Lujan Grisham revealed that the state has held hiring events to recruit more CYFD employees and said and the Governor said:
“CYFD is boosting hiring in their protective services division. We did a rapid hire series of events statewide.”
Governor Lujan Grisham’s enacted budget that took effect July 1, 2019 provides for an additional $36.5 million for the chronically understaffed CYFD. Under the enacted budget, 102 new social workers are to be hired by the agency’s child’s Protective Services Division.
CREATING DEPARTMENT OF EARLY CHILDHOOD
A new “Early Childhood Department” was created by the 2019 New Mexico Legislature starting in January 2020. This was a major priority of Governor Lujan Grisham. The new department will focus state resources on children from birth to 5 years of age. A major goal of the new department, coupled with other investments, will be more New Mexico children growing up to secure gainful employment as adults who don’t require government services.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
Some say the New Mexico legislature did too little in this year’s 2019 legislative session to deal with New Mexico’s Child Abuse and Neglect crisis. More was done to address the child abuse crisis in last 60-day session than was done during the entire 8 years of the former Republican Governor “She Who Must Not Be Named”. The only solution offered during the previous Republican Administration was increasing criminal penalties and more incarceration and even calling for reinstatement of the death penalty.
Still, the New Mexico legislature needs and can do more. A proposal to expand New Mexico’s child abuse reporting laws failed to make it through this year’s session and it should be revisited and enacted in the upcoming 2020 legislative session. Further, and ombudsman system could be established within CYFD to handle complaints filed by foster families.
All too often after horrific crimes against a child happens, elected officials express outrage and quickly announce proposed changes in the law, propose increases in penalties, often including reinstating the death penalty for heinous crimes against children. The typical public relations approach is to demand a review of policies and procedures and vow to hold people accountable for their inaction or incompetence.
There must be swift criminal justice upon those who harm our most vulnerable and innocent. The New Mexico Legislature or Governor need to create a “Crimes Against Children Prosecution Task Force” within the CYFD in conjunction with the New Mexico Attorney General and the New Mexico District Attorneys Association, fund it and staff it with experienced prosecutors and a special investigation unit to prosecute all child abuse and child neglect cases in the State with assistance of the local District Attorneys.
New Mexico must find solutions to what contributes to or cause our most horrific crimes against children: domestic violence, substance abuse, children living in severe poverty, a poor education system, the breakdown of the family unit, the failures of our social services and child protective services, a failed mental health system, an ineffective criminal justice system, and a failing economy.
Our children’s lives depend upon it as does New Mexico’s future.
Jesus said: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
— Matthew 19:13-14
POSTSCRIPT: NOTORIOUS CASES RECALLED
Six of the most notorious cases still haunt New Mexico and New Mexico continues to struggle with child abuse and neglect cases. The public needs to remember the names of these children and how all 6 children were killed to focus on how bad things are in New Mexico and its failure to protect its most vulnerable.
Following are those 6 cases:
1. OMAREE VARELA
In 2014, 9-year-old Omaree Varela was found beaten to death months after placing a desperate 911 call to APD. Nine-year-old Omaree Varela called 911 from his Albuquerque home 6 months before his death. In the 911 audio recording, the child’s mother and the boy’s stepfather can be heard hurling verbal abuse at the child. The parents were unaware that the 911 dispatcher was listening and recording the exchange. The verbal abuse began after the child accidentally spilled food on the ground. Two APD officers went out to the residence after the child’s 911 call and made several errors that day that may have led to the child’s eventual death. The 911 dispatcher told the APD officers that they should listen to the phone call before going to the home. APD officers never went to the child’s home.
According to police logs, the officers claimed they questioned the parents for two hours. Their lapel camera showed that the officers were there for only 15 minutes. The APD Officers did not write a report in the case with one officer saying he would call the state’s Children Youth and Family Department. No call to CYFD was ever made by either APD Officer. After arriving to the child’s home to investigate the 911 call, one of the officer’s belt tape has him telling the parents: “You guys seem like a good family. … A decent family. Just be careful what you guys say when you say stuff like that. I am going to overlook it right now.” Six months later, Omaree Varela was dead. The Omaree had been stomped and beaten to death by his parent. The autopsy report detailed the child’s injuries. The autopsy report said Omaree had lost about 25 percent of his blood volume through internal bleeding.
It was recently reported that Steve Casaus, the stepfather who was convicted of killing Omaree Varela could have his prison sentence cut in half.
2. VICTORIA MARTENS
On August 24, 2016, in one of the most brutal murders seen in Albuquerque’s history, APD found the dead body of ten-year-old Victoria Martens in an Albuquerque apartment. The APD Officers were responding to a 911 call for a “domestic” dispute. The APD officers discovered 10-year-old Victoria Martens’ dismembered body partially wrapped in a burning blanket in her mother’s apartment. The child’s mother, her boyfriend and the cousin of the boyfriend were arrested at the scene by APD. All three defendants were arrested and charged with first degree murder, child abuse resulting in great bodily harm and death, kidnapping, tampering with evidence and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
On August 4, 2017 it was reported that an investigation by the Civilian Police Oversight Agency (CPOA) found that a spokesperson for APD “did lie” about the police department’s response to a CYFD referral concerning Victoria Martens prior to her death. In late January 2017, two police spokespersons told the media that officers did investigate the referrals and stated that interviews with Victoria Martens and her mother had been conducted. The APD spoke persons lied and there were no interviews of the child nor of her mother.
After close to a full year in custody by the 3 charged defendants, it was revealed by the District Attorneys Office that the confession of the mother was fabricated, the DNA evidence did not substantiate the claims and that another person actually killed Victoria Martens. The suspect remains at large.
3. Jeremiah Valencia
In November 2017, the body of 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia was found buried in a shallow grave in Santa Fe County. Prosecutors say his stepfather kept him locked up in a dog cage and tortured him, and his stepbrother killed him. An autopsy of Jeremiah’s body revealed lacerations consistent with sexual assault. The autopsy also revealed that portions of his body “had possibly been burned.” Jeremiah’s mother plead guilty for her role in the case. His stepfather committed suicide in jail.
4. CHILD “JANE DOE”
In April, 2018, the New Mexico Attorney General launched and investigation after a school nurse reported that she thought a 9-year-old child girl was exhibiting signs of trafficking and sexual assault. The media never has released the child’s name and she is therefore referred in this article as Jane Doe. Other school employees described seeing “hickies” on the child’s neck and chest. In an April safe house interview, the child said one parent made her touch other adults inappropriately. One of the 7-year-old girl’s teachers found the girl’s underwear had caked blood on it, the child smelled of feces and urine. The teacher called the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) and the Children Youth and Families Department (CYFD) to report suspected child abuse.
The teacher told the APD Officer and the CYFD investigator she was “gagging because it smelled of feces and of urine”. When the teacher took the child’s clothing and went to put it in a bag, she discovered the child’s underwear had caked blood on it with dried feces. The teacher told the officers that the blood was not at all normal for a child of 7 who was not old enough to be menstruating. The teacher told the police officer and the CYFD investigator it was not the first time she had to give the 7-year-old child clean cloths and it was an ongoing problem. Instead of taking and tagging the child’s underwear into evidence, the APD officer threw it into a school dumpster, saying it was not useful as evidence. The child was never taken into protective custody. The child’s father case went to trial and the child testified against her defendant father. The District Court Judge was force to declare a mistrial in the jury trial after witnesses gave testimony about a topic that was prohibited. A second trial will be held and the child will have to testify again against her father.
5. THE 5 YEAR OLD SON OF FERNANDO AZOFEIFA
On April 2, 2019, in Farmington, New Mexico Fernando Azofeifa, 45, was charged with the murder of his 5-year-old son by smothering him to death with a pillow after a fight with the new boyfriend of the boy’s mother. (News accounts reviewed did not disclose the child’s name) The child’s mother received a text message from Azofeifa stating she would never see her son again. According to the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office says Fernando Azofeifa had been arguing with the child’s mother and pointed a rifle at a man she had with her when the two met to exchange the 5-year-old. They say he later sent a text message to the mother saying she would never see her son again. Deputies found the Azofeifa at an apartment in Farmington and hile searching the apartment, detectives found the boy’s body.
6. SARAH DUBOIS-GILBEAU
On April 5, 2019, it was reported that 5-year-old Sarah Dubois-Gilbeau, who had been diagnosed as being autistic, was beaten to death by her father, Brandon Reynolds with a rubber water shoe. APD Police say Reynolds, 36, beat his daughter to death because she refused to finish her homework, he had assigned her. She had welts and bruises all over her back and was literally beaten to death. Police found blood on the walls and carpet and bruising all over the girl’s body consistent with the treads from a shoe. The child was pronounced dead at University of New Mexico Hospital. Reynolds is charged with child abuse resulting in death.