New Mexico top prosecutor shifts focus to addressing child civil rights

New Mexico’s top prosecutor wants to start a conversation with lawmakers and the governor in hopes of charting a new course for a state beleaguered by violent crime, poor educational outcomes and persistently dismal child welfare rankings.

Attorney General Ra?l Torrez, who took office Jan. 1 after serving as the district attorney in New Mexico’s busiest judicial district, wants to focus on the civil rights of children by providing them with legal representation.

The Democrat says New Mexico is off the charts when it comes to abuse and neglect — and creating a special unit within the attorney general’s office could help turn the tide when it comes to combatting adverse childhood experiences that often result in youth ending up in the criminal justice system.

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Torrez outlined priorities for his administration and for the legislative session that begins Tuesday in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

While acknowledging the suite of public safety, bail reform and gun control bills to be introduced by lawmakers, he said he wants more of the focus to be on the role that child well-being plays in the state’s problems.

Torrez worked on one of the state’s highest profile child abuse cases while in private practice and was often asked as district attorney about the source of Albuquerque’s crime and public safety problems.

He said there’s been a lot of talk about drugs and guns but he believes it comes back to what happens when children end up in dangerous or destabilized homes or don’t get the help they need in the classroom.

“The people that we’re trying to detain today are usually kids that have been failed by the system 15 and 20 years before. That’s where they end up,” he said. “And so what I’m trying to do now is move the lens and move my focus not away from public safety, but further upstream to see if there’s a way for us to prevent people from coming into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place.”

Attorney General Ra?l Torrez is aiming to address adverse childhood experiences in New Mexico.
(AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

Advocates who have been pushing for years for child welfare reforms in New Mexico are excited about the prospects. Some describe it as a “public health crisis,” pointing to scientific research that shows abuse, neglect and other adverse experiences have been known to result in negative outcomes later in life.

New Mexico would join California and other states that have special offices focused on children’s rights or independent oversight panels that monitor child welfare agencies.

West Virginia, for example, has an office dedicated to educational stability for foster youth and juvenile justice and more than a dozen other state legislatures enacted bills in 2022 to establish advisory councils, boards and study committees focused on streamlining child services and accountability.

In New Mexico, the Children, Youth and Families Department has experienced turnover during Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and the current secretary — retired Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil — has vowed to make changes.

The agency has been criticized not only for removing children from their homes faster than they should have but also for not taking them into care when abuse was suspected, resulting in legal action.

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Maralyn Beck, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Child First Network, described the system as broken and said she’s encouraged by the attorney general’s focus on the issue.

“Solutions exist,” she said. “We have to prioritize this as a true crisis that needs addressing while understanding we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Veronica Montano-Pilch, executive director of New Mexico Kids Matter, said her organization has about 500 court-appointed volunteers around the state who look out for children as their cases work through the system and working with Torrez’s office would help.

“Say there’s a waterfall and if you’re at the bottom and you’re just pulling people out, what good is that?” Montano-Pilch said. “They’re already wet, they’re already drowning.”

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New Mexico persistently ranks as worst in the U.S. when it comes to factors of child well-being. The latest report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows one in four New Mexico children live in poverty and more than one-third have parents without secure employment. New Mexico also has the nation’s highest rate of children suffering from adverse experiences, according to national studies and the state’s top health officials.

Legislation aimed at fixing the problems isn’t new. Last year, lawmakers approved a measure creating a new office that would provide legal representation for certain children, parents and guardians whose children are at risk of being placed in state custody.

However, a bill that would have created an ombudsman oversight position stalled in the state Senate last year.

The attorney general said he believes the level of frustration has reached a point where people are ready for change.

“They’re tired of seeing broken institutions,” he said. “They’re tired of seeing these kids placed in harm’s way and we have the ability to do something. Other states have these kind of systems in place and I think we’re ready for it here in New Mexico.”