NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – We’ve heard time and time again from officials, from the public after the killing of a child, that we can’t let it happen again. It’s a crime that often includes details that are so sickening it’s hard to fathom.
The leadership of the agencies involved has come and gone, as have the caseworkers, officers, investigators and others who handled the case, so where is the accountability and the change?
It’s a question we started asking after the latest death of a child, James Dunklee.
No one wants to see a child die under their watch, but it keeps happening. From 5-month-old Baby Brianna, beaten and raped by her father and uncle while her mother did nothing to stop it – to Victoria Martens murdered and dismembered just one day after her 10th birthday, under her mom’s watch. To 13-year-old Jeremiah Valencia beaten, starved, left in a dog crate, then dumped in a shallow grave on the side of a highway. And just in December James Dunklee, killed, allegedly by his mother’s roommate. His body covered in bruises and injuries.
Old and new these cases are part of New Mexico’s sad history and have been behind the push for accountability and change. And that demand for accountability is growing nationwide in part because of one of the most viewed series on Netflix right now: The Trials Of Gabriel Fernandez
It’s the story of an 8-year-old Los Angeles boy kept in a cabinet, starved, shot with a bb gun, beaten, and how the system failed him.
It is a sad story that is sparking change but frankly, the story isn’t very different from the cases we’ve seen in New Mexico.
It was nearly twelve years ago that we first saw the changes in law sparked by the murder of Baby Brianna; life sentences for intentional child abuse resulting in death. The abusers are going to prison longer but what about the system, the agencies designed to save these children before it’s too late?
“Accountability is the number one thing we need to focus on in order to learn from these issues,” says Senator Michael Padilla (D) for Bernalillo County Padilla believes more needs to be done. He and his four sisters grew up in the foster system and he has fought for years to make that system better. “You don’t know what you don’t know if you don’t even have the data available to help you make decisions – to inform you on what needs to happen here.”
The Children’s Code restricts the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD) from releasing any details about abuse cases when the child is still living and, requires they only release partial information when a child dies. Senator Padilla believes transparency at CYFD needs to improve. It is the agency that responds to child abuse, and in part, decides the best course for the child. “What do they do with it and what are they allowed to do with it? From a legal standpoint, I think we really need to do a thorough flushing of (the) Children’s Code and modernize it. (It) hasn’t been modernized for 20 years.”
What CYFD Does to Learn From So Called “Mistakes of the Past”
“We actively worked with (the) Dept of Health when I came on board to look at every child(‘s) death over fifteen years so we can get a sense of what we can be doing better, and what policy recommendations can come out of that. That was (a) mammoth task because of where data is in New Mexico,” says Brian Blalock CYFD Secretary. Brian Blalock became the secretary of the Children Youth and Families Department a little over a year ago.
Blalock says there are review systems in place, “if you don’t have a death but something horrible happen(s), what is (the) process?” Blalock says they have a substitute advisory council that can come in and play an outside part, not with CYFD but he as found that not all the processes available for use are, or have been used in the past. Secretary Blalock says he and his team are working hard to improve accountability within the agency.
Senator Padilla thinks there are some steps we need to take to get there, including the creation of a Child Homicide Review Board, “essentially every component, every agency, every department no matter who it was that interacted with anything related to a child when there was a homicide, are brought together around a table and don’t stop looking at issue until we find out why it happened.”
Secretary Blalock says he’s working on improving the relationship between police agencies. He says the mission is the same for all involved, save children and make sure they’re living their best lives. “When we talk about holding (someone) accountable, sometimes that can sound punitive. Or sometimes it can sound like, who do we blame? And what we’ve found so far is that when we are inviting people to the table and saying we all care about children and families – and always want what’s best about it, let’s communicate better and collaborate more. For the most part, our partners come to (the) table and come true, so the way we hold each other accountable is when we see a child falling through the cracks, we pick up the phone and call.”