Warning: Some may find the details of the story disturbing.
RIO RANCHO, N.M. (KRQE) – An intellectually disabled individual is dead after alleged abuse and neglect in what New Mexico Department of Health officials are calling a “horrendous case.”
The death is the latest news in an ongoing look into New Mexico’s troubled developmental disability healthcare program. After initial allegations of abuse within the state’s healthcare program in March, health officials and law enforcement have been checking in on thousands of people enrolled in the program. Now, officials have made three arrests related to what Patrick Allen, the secretary for the New Mexico Department of Health (DOH), called “the worst breach of trust DOH has ever seen.”
The case of alleged abuse comes to light
In February 2023, at the U.S.-Mexico border, officials stopped a van carrying a 38-year-old woman, Mary Melero, into Mexico to receive medical treatment for wounds and injuries, according to New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez. Melero was unresponsive and was drugged when officials found her, Torrez said in a press release.
Melero was taken to a hospital but ultimately passed away in April. Since then, federal and state investigators and law enforcement have been looking into exactly what went wrong within the state’s system of contract healthcare for developmentally disabled individuals. The two people driving the van into Mexico, and a third person, have since been arrested.
“In my nearly 20 years as a prosecutor, I can tell you without question, that the injuries that Mary endured, that the harm that was inflicted on her, was nothing short of torture,” Torrez said Thursday, May 18. “She had multiple bed sores and pressure wounds that were so severe there was even exposed bone.” There were also marks indicating she had been restrained at some point.
Torrez said the woman had been receiving care at a residence in Rio Rancho. Angelita Chacon, one of those arrested, had been paid thousands of dollars by the state of New Mexico to provide care for the 38-year-old woman, Torrez said.
Issues within the Developmental Disabilities Waiver program
In March, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a statewide investigation into the state’s Developmental Disabilities Waiver Program, which is intended to help individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Over the last few months, officials have found dozens of sites with “possible concerns” and more than 40 site visits have revealed allegations of abuse, according to the Department of Health.
Torrez says that when the Developmental Disabilities Waiver program is done right, it’s a beneficial system that allows individuals to have better contact with their community and better care from loved ones. But Torrez says this latest case reveals the need for oversight and more law enforcement. He also says New Mexico needs to “take a step back” and consider structural reform of the program.
Three arrested, facing charges
Three people are now facing charges related to the case of the allegedly abused 38-year-old woman, Mary Melero.
Angelita Chacon, from Rio Rancho, is facing charges including abuse resulting in death and false imprisonment. Patricia Hurtado, who law enforcement say is Chacon’s girlfriend, is also charged with similar crimes. Luz Scott, who law enforcement say is Chacon and Hurtado’s friend, is facing charges including false imprisonment.
“What we know about Mary before these events was that she was ambulatory [i.e. she could get around on her own], she was capable of cooking some of her own meals and had the ability to communicate in some fashion, but that she did require extensive care,” Attorney General Torrez said in Thursday’s press conference. Torrez said officials are still investigating the extent to which third-party providers within the Developmental Disabilities Wavier program played a role, although there were at least four such providers offering services to Melero.
“What we do know is that the primary coordinator of her care is a group called At Home Advocacy (AHA),” Torrez said. And that according to AHA records, Melero had a home visit about a month before officials found her in a dire state. And the records showed she was supposed to have another visit in February.
Cutting ties with contractors
Torrez says investigators are looking into how many contacts AHA had with Melero during the home visit. “It seems apparent that that home visit was inadequate,” Torrez said.
Already, the state has terminated contracts with AHA and the three other companies that provided care to Melero. And German Burnette & Associates (in partnership with a company specializing in Medicaid issues, Accenture) has been looking into the statewide Developmental Disabilities Waiver program. The Department of Health says their report will be made public once completed.
In the meantime, the Department of Health says that if you are concerned that someone is being taken advantage of or abused by a caretaker, you can contact the police, Call the State’s Adult Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation Hotline at 1-800-445-6242, or file a report online. You can also contact Disability Rights New Mexico.