NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – In 2013 it was Omaree Varela. In 2016 it was Victoria Martens. In 2018 it was Jeremiah Valencia. All New Mexico kids killed after experiencing horrendous abuse. Police, the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD), and other agencies promised to do better to keep this from happening again but it has happened again.
On December 10, 2019, 4-year-old James Dunklee was killed allegedly by his mother’s roommate and his injuries are heartbreaking. And like in many of the previous cases, CYFD was involved, and aware of possible abuse.
So how did this happen again? That’s what we wanted to find out.
In this four-part series, we discovered there is no one simple answer, one agency or person to blame but a system that still has much more work to do.
“He was a loving little boy,” says Kevin Nelson, James Dunklee-Cruz’s grandfather. “I mean, I’d walk in and see him, he’d run to me and say “papa” and grab ahold of my leg, and he would hug my leg.”
But the marks on his tiny body when he was rushed to the hospital on December 10, 2019, told a much different story. Paramedics tried desperately to revive the boy who wasn’t breathing that night. Their efforts would fail and 4-year-old James Dunklee was pronounced dead. It was clear to everyone in the room that what happened to James was no accident.
James had bruises on his left and right hips, his ribs, his cheek, as well as his bicep, ear, lower neck, the bridge of his nose, elbow, middle of his back, his buttocks, and both knees and shoulders. He had two knots on his head, a bloody upper ear and chin, scratches on his chest, neck, and chin. A large portion of the inside of his bottom lip was missing.
When doctors performed an autopsy, they found a lacerated liver and pancreas, bruising on the lungs and intestines, a large amount of blood in his abdomen, and a skull fracture.
“Shouldn’t have happened, there’s no way it should’ve happened, and it should never happened again to anybody else.” Kevin Nelson is angry more wasn’t done to protect his grandson.
The 4-year-old lived with Nelson for more than a year. His mother dropped off when she couldn’t care for him – bruised, hungry, smelling of urine with tattered clothes.
Nelson says they took James in. They took care of him and he was happy.
Then one-day CYFD and Albuquerque Police showed up at his door saying the mother, Krista Cruz, wanted him back. Nelson says he pleaded with them, warned them the boy would be in danger but the boy was taken anyway.
Kevin Nelson never saw his grandson alive again.
Nelson wouldn’t learn until after James’ death that the boy was living with his mother, her friend, and her husband at the Cinnamon Tree Apartments on Central and Louisiana, where he was eventually killed allegedly at the hands of Zerrick Marquez.
In an interview with the Secretary of NM Children Youth & Families Department Brian Blalock, KRQE News 13 asked what was the reaction when he heard a child, under CYFD’s radar, had been killed, “My reaction to any child dying is incredible grief because it’s a great tragedy,” says Blalock. “I think New Mexico is in crisis right now for many reasons related to over well-being of our children and our families.”
How much involvement did CYFD have with James Dunklee? According to court documents “CYFD had documented previous allegations of abuse perpetrated by the defendant”… in fact “there was a safety plan in place where James was not supposed to be cared for by the defendant.”
There are many unanswered questions. What were those allegations of abuse? When did they happen? Who reported them? What did CYFD do about them? Why was the child not removed from the home?
All questions James’ grandfather has. He was in tears as a caseworker and APD forced him to hand over his grandson. And when asked what was the reason behind that decision, Blalock responded, “So I can’t talk about an individual case.”
It’s an answer we get all the time from CYFD. Why?
The Children’s Code is a state law that protects the privacy of children who are allegedly abused. It’s against the law for CYFD to release information or records about “a party to neglect or abuse” to the public”. The rules change when a child dies whereupon CYFD does have to release basic information about the child and a summary of the investigation into the case.
CYFD says they will release information in the Dunklee case when the investigation is complete.
Changing the Code
Senator Michael Padilla (D) for Bernalillo County has been working for years to improve New Mexico’s Children Youth and Families System. For him, it’s personal. He grew up as a foster child, “I came to the legislature wanting to work on this issue. Me and my sisters said if there was anything we could do; we would do it and here we are.”
Padilla says, “when a child like this, a situation happens – he is all of our son, he belongs to all of us and we all need to learn from this situation. Transparency is absolutely key accountability being able to understand what happened in this case and previous cases that have happened.”
However, with the deaths of Omaree, Martens, Valencia, and Dunklee there’s still a problem. “We have had some of the worst crimes against children in New Mexico over the last decade,” says Padilla and that mean’s there’s much more work to be done.
Padilla has made many changes and believes they are making a difference long term, “something that really needs to happen in New Mexico and I intend to work on, if I continue to be a senator, is a complete and full rewrite of our Children’s Code.”
Balock has been the Secretary of the Children Youth and Families Department for a little over a year and the Dunklee murder is the first highly publicized case under his watch.
He says his office is already working to learn from it and does point out that there is a reason for privacy in child abuse cases, especially those where a child doesn’t’ die,
“You don’t want a youth to have something that is attached to them that is the result of the worst day of their life. It’s a stigma that follows them throughout their life.”
The Secretary says they’re working toward more transparency, “I think that it is vital and I think that is the constant tension for us,” adding, “we want to give as much as info responsibly as long as (it’s) in best interest of the children and our families, and allowable under law.”