New Mexico Attorney General focuses on children’s civil rights

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FILE – Bernalillo County District Attorney-Elect Raul Torrez speaks in Albuquerque, NM on December 20, 2016. Attorney General Raúl Torrez, who took office on January 1 after serving as a district attorney in New Mexico’s busiest judicial district, wants to focus on children’s civil rights to ensure they don’t fall through the cracks by giving them a legal representation is offered. Torrez wants to start a conversation with lawmakers and the governor in hopes of charting a new course for a state plagued by violent crime, poor educational outcomes and persistently dismal child protection rankings. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

AP

The New Mexico Attorney General wants to start a conversation with lawmakers and the governor in hopes of charting a new course for a state plagued by violent crime, poor educational outcomes and persistently dismal child welfare records.

Attorney General Raúl Torrez, who took office January 1 after serving as a district attorney in New Mexico’s busiest judicial district, wants to focus on children’s civil rights 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 task force within the attorney general’s office could help turn the tide when it comes to tackling adverse childhood experiences that often lead to it lead to young people becoming criminals judiciary.

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

While acknowledging the public safety, bail reform and gun control bills to be introduced by the legislature, he would like more focus to be placed on the role that child welfare plays in the problems of the state.

Torrez worked in private practice on one of the state’s most high-profile child molestation cases and, as a district attorney, was often asked about the source of Albuquerque’s crime and public safety issues.

He said there has been a lot of talk about drugs and guns, but he believes what matters is what happens when children end up in dangerous or destabilized families or don’t get the help they need in the classroom.

“The people we are trying to arrest today are usually children who failed the system 15 or 20 years ago. That’s where they end up,” he said. “And what I’m trying to do now is move the lens and take my focus, not away from public safety, but further upstream to see if there’s any way we can prevent people from having any contact with the criminal justice system at all.” come.”

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

New Mexico would join California and other states that have dedicated bureaus focused on children’s rights or independent oversight boards that oversee child protection agencies.

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

In New Mexico, the Department of Children, Youth and Families saw a change during the tenure of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, and the current secretary — retired Supreme Court Justice Barbara Vigil — has promised to make changes.

The agency has been criticized not only for removing children from their homes faster than necessary, but also for failing to take care of them when abuse is suspected, leading to legal action.

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

“There are solutions,” she said. “We need to prioritize this as a real crisis that needs to be addressed, while understanding that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

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

“Let’s say there’s a waterfall and if you’re down and just pulling people out, what’s the use?” said Montano-Pilch. “They’re already wet, they’re already drowning.”

New Mexico consistently ranks highest in the United States when it comes to child welfare factors. The latest report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that one in four children in New Mexico lives in poverty and more than a third have parents without secure jobs. New Mexico also has the highest rate of children suffering from adverse experiences in the state, according to national studies and the state’s health authorities.

The legislation to fix the problems is not new. Last year, lawmakers approved a measure to create a new office that would provide legal representation to designated children, parents and guardians whose children are at risk of being placed in government custody.

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

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

“They are tired of seeing broken institutions,” he said. “They are tired of seeing these children being put at risk and we have an opportunity to do something. Other states have these types of systems and I think we are prepared for that here in New Mexico.”

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