Governor announces Children Advocacy Center

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Hoping to reduce the number of child abuse cases in the state, Gov. Susana Martinez signed an executive order directing the Children Youth and Families Department to establish a Child Advocacy Center pilot program in Valencia County.

The Child Advocacy Center will be modeled after the Albuquerque Family Advocacy Center and other centers around the nation, and house a variety of social service providers, law enforcement agencies, non-profit and public partners to coordinate services for victims of domestic or sexual abuse.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Gov. Susana Martinez held a press conference at the Henry Perea Building in Los Lunas Friday to sign an executive order directing CYFD to establish a Valencia County Child Advocacy Center as one of her initiatives to end child abuse in New Mexico. She is joined by state Reps. Kelly Fajardo, Alonzo Baldonado, to her left, and Vickie Perea, to her right.

“It’s great because it allows all of us to work together in one place,” said Los Lunas Police Chief Naithan Gurule. “It makes everything easy for the victim ― one smooth process rather than sending them to a bunch of different places.”

Law enforcement officers, child forensic interviewers, sexual assault nurse examiners, social service organizations and child abuse caseworkers under one roof will offer more comprehensive welfare services, said Gov. Susana Martinez.

“This model of bringing together a diverse team of trained and dedicated professionals will help keep more of our children safe,” the governor said. “Emphasizing the team approach will help improve communication and information sharing, so these professionals can better protect the children and families they serve.”

Valencia County was chosen for the pilot program because there is a high per capita rate of child abuse or neglect investigations, and it is one of the highest-risk and highest-need areas of the state for child welfare services, Martinez said.

A central location will allow child abuse professionals to be more accessible. The governor stressed the importance of trained interviewers and examiners in cases of child abuse or sexual assault.

When a child confides to an adult about abuse it is crucial they speak with someone that has experience in how to conduct such an interview, and knows what to look for, she said.

“Making a call to the police or to the social worker is the best way to handle the situation,” Martinez said. “These are crimes ― calling 911 is not wrong either.”

Imagine a child who finally has the courage to tell and talks to a teacher. How the professional responds to that child can be the most important response in that child’s life, the governor said.

Abused children are often afraid to say anything, and may worry they will be taken away from their home, or that telling will get the non-abusing parent in trouble. When they muster the courage to tell someone, they are testing the waters.

“We have to make sure that the response is one that is responsible, one that is very caring, because that child can see either the sky is going to fall all around them and the family will be torn apart, or the needs of that child and the non-offending parent or parents will be taken care of,” Martinez said.

Part of the difficulty in handling child abuse cases in Valencia County is that victims have to go to Albuquerque for forensic interviews, medical exams, body scans and photographs.

The timeliness of these procedures are critical, and having to go to Albuquerque can add stress to an already stressful situation, especially for the victim, said Ann Keaner, assistant district attorney.

“As many services that we can do locally is a help both to the constituents of this county, but it also would be incredibly helpful to law enforcement and the district attorney’s office,” she Keaner. “We can build better, stronger cases and get them dealt with earlier rather than later.”

An advocacy center in Los Lunas might also help bring resources to the county.

“While a lot of services from Albuquerque are well-meaning to serve the tri-county area, Albuquerque as a major metropolitan area drains resources, and so those resources never make it down to Valencia County,” said Alexandria Taylor, the executive director of Valencia Shelter Services.

“It’s really hard to get civil legal services for indigent folks, and it’s really important.”

Often the offender is able to hire an attorney, which only adds more trauma for the victim, so having an attorney in Valencia County is also very important, Taylor said.

The child advocacy pilot program will be housed in the Henry Perea Building, 750 Morris Road, and is slated to be up and running by the end of the summer, the governor said.

“We just need to do a few little changes. We want to make sure there is a child-friendly room where the interview will take place,” she said.

And there will be some equipment purchases and renovations of rooms to allow simultaneous interviews, but the goal is to make sure this happens as fast as possible.

“Under one roof, you have all the key players that are involved in a case from its conception to its end,” said New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassestas.

He said this is important for law enforcement officers because they get calls from all over their jurisdiction, and a one-stop shop is a better organized system.

The governor’s effort to reduce the number of child abuse cases in New Mexico involves three areas of improvement; communication, additional CYFD caseworkers and implementing a more proactive and coherent approach to working with families who have faced multiple investigations.

She said she will also continue to fight for legislation that would allow a court to order counseling services and interventions for families who frequently interact with CYFD.

“Through this pilot program, we will assess the positive impact that a child advocacy center has on Valencia (County) families, and work to identify other areas of the state where local partners are willing to commit to an expansion of the child advocacy centers,” Martinez said.

These measures are being instituted following the recent death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela in Albuquerque, allegedly by the hands of his mother.

According to her press release, the governor and her staff worked with CYFD officials, state police and the Department of Public Safety to examine the details of the case, and identify gaps in the current approach to investigating, which the executive order reforms are designed to help address.


-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.