Feb. 22, 2017
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Anson Stevens-Bollen

Next in Line

New Mexico sees one high-profile child abuse death after the next, but outcomes for children aren’t getting any better

December 14, 2016, 12:00 am

On a winter afternoon nearly five years ago, a 3-year-old child showed up at the emergency room at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center. He arrived unconscious and vomiting, covered in bruises.

Those who follow the evening news remember the facts, but only two people know the full story.

Leland Valdez’ mother, Tabetha Van Holtz, and her then-boyfriend, Steven Gallegos, drove the boy down to the hospital from Pojoaque. They claimed he fell out of a chair and hit his head while eating chicken noodle soup.

Doctors immediately cast suspicion on the couple’s tale. Leland had cuts and bruises on his face, legs, stomach, back and groin area. Some were fresh. Others had partially healed. The injuries appeared to have been inflicted over time, pointing to abuse rather than an accident. Physicians called the police. Sheriff’s deputies arrested Van Holtz and Gallegos later that night on charges of child abuse.

Leland, meanwhile, rode a helicopter to University Hospital in Albuquerque. He held on for two days before succumbing to his injuries on January 26, 2011. A medical examiner later determined the cause of death to be blunt force trauma to the head and neck.

Newspapers and local TV stations ran photos of Leland wearing a smile and huge sunglasses. Another snapshot shows him sporting a blue suit vest, tie and pocket square, his elbow resting on an armchair. Leland’s obituary noted his love for sailing, bike riding, skiing and his older sister. His funeral was conducted in private.

The court, as it does, moved slowly towards justice. Gallegos pleaded guilty in 2014 to two counts of intentional child abuse, one of which led to Leland’s death. He is currently serving a 21-year prison sentence at Guadalupe County Correctional Facility.

Leland Valdez’ death in 2011 sparked promises of reform, but child well-being in the state has only gotten worse since then, according to the Annie E Casey Foundation.
Courtesy Photo

Van Holtz pleaded guilty to the same charges four months later and received a nine-year sentence including two years probation. She walked out of prison in September after about a year and a half behind bars, freed on time served and good behavior.

Leland’s death set off a chain reaction familiar to New Mexicans: a series of promises and finger-pointing that repeats itself when children die horrific deaths. The players change, but outcomes for children don’t get any better.

State officials and journalists wasted no time finding culpability among cops and caseworkers who came across Leland before that fateful morning.

Governor Susana Martinez, just a few weeks into her first term at the time, got personally involved in Leland’s case. She fed a scoop to the media: Protective services workers from the Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) came across Leland’s case earlier that year. An investigator visited with the boy after his father reported substantial bruising on his body. Leland allegedly told his father, “Mommy hit me.” But after interviewing the child, the investigator couldn’t determine who caused the injuries. His supervisor closed the case.

That supervisor got fired. The investigator was put on 14 days of administrative leave. Santa Fe County Sheriff Robert Garcia told The New Mexican his office “screwed up” when it became clear that one of his deputies previously interviewed Leland after an abuse allegation, but did not forward his findings to the district attorney’s office.

Leland’s estate settled a wrongful death lawsuit with Santa Fe County in October for $450,000. Reflecting on the case now, Garcia says the officer’s failure to pass on information went against department policy at the time. “The protocol has always been in place, but that initial report never went forward,” he tells SFR.

CYFD underwent an internal investigation. Former State Sen. Mary Jane Garcia, a Democrat from Doña Ana, introduced four bills related to child abuse that session. “A good analysis, a good critical analysis of the agency is desperately needed,” said Martinez in an interview with The New Mexican one week after Leland’s death.

Over the next couple years an average of nine children died of homicide each year, 47 percent of whom were killed by the mother’s partner.

Thousands more have endured abuse and neglect. The child victim rate in New Mexico rose nearly eight points from 2011 to 2015, before seeing a slight dip this year. And the state dropped from 46th to 49th in the nation for overall child well-being, according to the annual Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E Casey Foundation.

Just last month, a Santa Fe boy named Ares Baroz arrived at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center with a fractured skull and bleeding brain. The toddler died a few days later at University Hospital in the same wing where Leland breathed his final breath.

A neurologist noted that Ares’ brain showed signs he had been shaken before. His mother claimed to have found him unresponsive in his crib, one of the only pieces of furniture in the home. Prosecutors charged the mother with two counts of child abuse. His father was already locked up in Colorado on unrelated charges.

“Child protection is trapped in a cycle of scandal and reform,” wrote Harvard-based historian Jill Lepore in February, tracing the evolution of American attitudes towards child welfare policy for The New Yorker. Lepore described a “pendulum” of policy, swinging between separation and restoration of families involved with protective services.

New Mexico is no exception.

In recent years, high-profile child deaths have prompted proposals to overhaul CYFD and enact tough-on-crime legislation.

We remember the children’s names. They become laws, like 18-month-old Brianna Lopez, who died in Las Cruces in 2003 after physical and sexual abuse by family members. The Legislature passed Baby Brianna’s law two years later, making child abuse resulting in death for kids under the age of 12 a first-degree felony punishable by life in prison. Brianna’s name resurfaced this fall, when Republican legislators attempted to extend that law to people who kill children under the age of 18. CYFD secretary Monique Jacobson spoke in support of the proposal.

The beating death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela by his own mother in 2013 led to an exhaustive review of CYFD, which had previously investigated nine allegations of abuse against the child. One Albuquerque police officer got the boot after it was revealed he failed to listen to a 20-minute 911 recording from Omaree’s household that captured two adults verbally abusing the young child.

Four months after Omaree’s death, the governor held a press conference announcing a host of reforms at CYFD. She focused on improving cooperation between police and caseworkers. The CYFD and Public Safety secretaries stood by the governor’s side as she pushed for more child advocacy centers, where law enforcement and protective services work together.

The foster care population boomed after the 2014 death of Omaree Varela. Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino suggested a more cautious approach to abuse led to the increase, while CYFD Secretary Monique Jacobson said it naturally grew out of more calls to protective services.

Omaree’s death also preceded a foster home population boom from 1,872 to 2,156 over a fiscal year. Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a former social worker who once headed protective services for the state, says that increase signals a switch in policy to err on the side of removing children from their family.

That’s not true, says Secretary Jacobson, who moved to the position in 2014 after heading the Tourism Department. She points to an increase in calls around the same period. (While CYFD field workers substantiate cases of abuse, custody is ultimately the terrain of the courts.)

This summer, a 10-year-old girl named Victoria Martens died in Albuquerque after unspeakable horrors that involved forced drug use, beatings and repeated rape.

Sen. Michael Padilla, a Democrat from the same city, called for another investigation of the agency. Gov. Martinez held another press conference. “Justice should come down like a hammer on the monster who committed this murder,” she said.

Two months later, Martinez placed the death penalty on the agenda for a special Legislative session intended to address New Mexico’s budget crisis. The proposal, along with two other crime bills, did not pass.

Angela Teertstra supervised protective services fieldworkers in Albuquerque at the time of Omaree’s death. She tells SFR that immediately after, police started practicing extra caution when they came across potential abuse, referring more cases to her office.

That caution rippled to CYFD as well. Teertstra’s superiors instructed her to review a backlog of cases in which a family received three or more referrals, whether substantiated or not. Teertstra took time away from her team to sort through files, creating more work for herself and her fieldworkers. “The intention was good, but the resources weren’t there,” she says.

Plagued by burnout and huge caseloads, CYFD has continually struggled to keep fieldworkers. Lawmakers took note of the agency’s troubles during the last two legislative sessions, allocating more than $3 million for new positions. That’s a modest increase for an a general fund appropriation that grew from $200 to $240 million during the Martinez administration.

Despite more children entering foster care, CYFD secretary Monique Jacobson did not request any new funds for the next fiscal year.
Steven Hsieh

CYFD held rapid hiring events this summer, reducing the vacancy rate from 18 percent to 11 percent. But the turnover rate for the fiscal year ending in June remained below target levels, as it has for at least five fiscal years. “Unless turnover rates are reduced additional [positions] will not impact caseloads as significantly,” a report from the Legislative Finance Committee noted.

Teertrstra tells SFR that caseload got worse during her tenure, from 2004 through this August. She left the agency to spend more time with her son.

“When I started as an investigator, you could go out and refer them to services. Now, all they’re doing now is investigating safety. That’s all they have time for. It’s not manageable. That’s why people leave,” she says. “I remember being an investigator and going, It’s Christmas. Thank God. We’re going to get a break. Not anymore. It’s steady.”

"I remember being an investigator and going, It’s Christmas. Thank God. We’re going to get a break. Not anymore."
-Angela Teertstra, former CYFD worker

Starting in the mid-2000s, CYFD loosened hiring restrictions, recruiting from outside the state’s pool of licensed social workers, opening up eligibility to recent college grads with related degrees, like psychology or education.

Teertstra said that change also contributed to the turnover.

“If you come from a middle class family, it’s hard not to judge someone based on your values. It’s unfortunate people leave before they get it,” she adds. “It’s just really hard. The caseloads are high. The media, the people. People’s perspective of CYFD is hard to deal with.”

New Mexico needs to shift its thinking about child welfare if it’s going to prevent abuse on a large scale, says Krisztina Ford, CEO of All Faiths, an Albuquerque outpatient therapy organization that runs the largest forensic interview station for child abuse victims in the state. Children who come through her doors usually live in poor households.

“No education. No jobs. Substance abuse. Domestic violence. Hunger,” she says. “When you look at these families, they have multiple stress factors. They are not sitting on a couch, deciding that night they will abuse their kids.”

She says outsized attention on high-profile abuse distracts from deep, systemic problems impacting outcomes for children: “We all want to do something in the moment. We all want to make it good—buy a teddy bear. But we really need to demand better systems.”

Home visiting, programs that send caseworkers to check in with new mothers for a period after birth, is part of that system. So is preschool and childcare. New Mexico has invested in all three—and spending on those programs has slowly increased over the past few years.

CYFD in April also expanded eligibility for childcare assistance to families within 200 percent of the poverty line, a bump up from 150 percent. (That number has fluctuated for decades between 100 and 200, depending on the economy.)

While most state agencies took a 5 percent cut during the October budget session, CYFD went unscathed. In fact, the agency received an additional $1.5 million, about a .6 percent increase from the beginning of the fiscal year. Jacobson plans to spend the new dollars on expanding pre-K access to 3-year-olds (right now 4 is the minimum age requirement) and home visiting for babies that leave from neonatal intensive care units.

Advocates say that isn’t nearly enough. Sen. Ortiz y Pino says there should be mandated home visiting for Medicaid recipients. “A lot of these families have no idea how to parent,” he tells SFR, suggesting that the state draw more dollars from the permanent fund to cover the costs.

Nonprofits are looking more to local governments to pick up the state’s slack, says Kim Strauss, the manager of the Brindle Foundation. His organization helped the City of Santa Fe pay for a study on how a soda tax could create about $10 million for pre-K education. Mayor Javier Gonzales announced the idea in October.

“We’re more and more convinced that the state is not as able to do that as local communities are,” Strauss says. “If leadership is local, there is a better chance community-by-community to improve the opportunities for young children and families. The state is complicated. It’s broke.”

Even so, Jacobson, CYFD secretary, did not suggest any cuts or request any new funds during a hearing with the Legislative Finance Committee last week. “We view as our job to convince the Legislature we are spending these dollars the smart way,” she tells SFR.

But with a budget on the brink and revenue projections down, CYFD could still find itself on the chopping block. Rep. Jimmie Hall, a Republican from Albuquerque, told her, “We’re asking for your help. If we don’t get it, the committee will make recommendations that won’t be good for your department and the core vision of what you have to have.”

It can’t just be the purview of CYFD to ensure the welfare of our children, advocates say. Everyone needs to step up.

Jess Clark, the education and prevention manager at Solace Crisis Treatment Center, teaches a sexual abuse awareness program funded by the Department of Health. He takes his lessons to middle schools and fourth grade classrooms.

In the past, when we talked about sexual abuse, we focused on the “creepy man in the van,” Clark says. “But children are clear about strangers. What they’re less clear about is the people in their lives, the people they trust.”

Jess Clark of the Solace Center says child sex abuse prevention has moved away from looking out for the “creepy man in the van” to education about the whole community’s role.
Steven Hsieh

Solace’s education programming now aims to foster stronger community awareness of the potential signs for abuse. “When we portray the adults who hurt children as sick, we place them in this other category. When we do that we deny our own responsibility in preventing abuse,” Clark says.

Near Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, a charter school called Health Leadership High School primarily serves disadvantaged students. Jeanette Paiz teaches a night class there. Her students range in age from 16 to 24 and many of them have children themselves.

In keeping with the school’s philosophy of learning through “hands-on health projects,” the students invited Suzannah Burke, executive director of Peanut Butter and Jelly, a family services organization, to give a demonstration on shaken baby syndrome.

Paiz’ night class developed a lesson based on simulation babies that cry until you shake them violently. They’ll be teaching Health Leadership’s daytime students. “These young people deliver a stronger message than if it comes from an old lady like me,” Paiz says.

Burke points to Paiz’ classroom as an example of a community-minded approach towards child abuse. The state, Burke says, could benefit from the same spirit of cooperation. “What is Public Safety’s role in this? What is the Corrections Department’s role? Human Services Department?” she says. “Each of those departments owns child development.”

Peanut Butter and Jelly works with families referred by protective services. On top of that, Burke’s staffers make weekly visits to the city and county jail, addiction clinics and other venues where they may find at-risk parents and children.

One caseworker, Claudia Benavidez, started doing outreach on streets well trafficked by sex workers. It wasn’t long before medical students joined Benavidez on her walks.

Connected with the right services, parents make tremendous progress. In the last fiscal year, about 60.4 percent of New Mexico children that entered foster care were reunited with their family within 12 months.

Burke says, “The public has to be seeing more than one horrific case after the other. Parents do get better and connect in positive ways and they’re supported in doing that.”

Francesca Duran-Lopez was 16 when she became pregnant with her first son. She was under house arrest in Clovis at the time, awaiting trial.

Three years prior, she had been charged, along with two other girls, for her involvement in the beating and stabbing death of a 13-year-old girl named Regina McCollum. (Prosecutors claimed Duran-Lopez instigated the attack, a claim she denies.)

Duran-Lopez’ sudden pregnancy set off alarm bells for the district judge. He ruled that she had violated her terms of release by coming into contact with someone outside her family. She pleaded guilty to aggravated battery charges and went to the juvenile lockup in Albuquerque to serve out a two-year sentence. “I wanted to move on and start life with my son,” she says.

Not long after Duran-Lopez arrived at the jail, Burke paid her a visit. The social worker regularly checks for pregnant women at both the adult and juvenile jails. Burke told Duran-Lopez she wouldn’t qualify for services until her son was born, but promised to return after she became a mother.

“I didn’t trust very easily,” Duran-Lopez tells SFR. She grew up in a household fraught with alcoholism and domestic violence. “I didn’t believe that Susannah would come back.”

On April 20, 2002, Duran-Lopez gave birth to her son. Not long after, Burke arranged for the boy to live with Duran-Lopez’ mother. Duran-Lopez enrolled in parenting classes and group sessions. Her son made regular visits.

As she developed a relationship with her newborn child, Duran-Lopez also began processing own trauma. She recalls Burke asking her, “What happened to you, Francesca? What happened to you?”

“That was the first time I met someone who truly cared. People had sat me in courtrooms and made accusations. When I was at Head Start, they said, ‘She’s troubled and she’s bad,’ but no one had ever asked what was going on in that little girl’s home.”

Duran-Lopez was released in 2003. Her son was a year and three days old. PB&J set her up with a job at Kmart, and the New Mexico Youth Alliance invited her to sit on its inaugural advisory board. She also started taking classes at UNM, working towards an associate’s degree.

In 2006, PB&J hired Duran-Lopez to work in its therapeutic preschool as a teacher’s assistant. Today, she manages the organization’s five-member home visiting team. But “management” doesn’t do justice to the scope of her work. Duran-Lopez also goes out into the field. She says her past helps her connect with families she serves.

“I don’t always share my stories. I think that families just know. A lot of times, we may share in the Hispanic culture. Many people would say I’m good at it. But, I don’t know, I just want to make sure people feel cared for at the end of the day.”


 

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