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Child abuse prosecution: In whose best interest?

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Joshua and Aimee Kuckartz and their eight children during a vacation in 2012. The parents are accused of child abuse involving one child, but they say it was an accident caused during the disciplining of the child, who has a behavioral disorder. (Courtesy of Aimee Kuckartz)

Joshua and Aimee Kuckartz and their eight children during a vacation in 2012. The parents are accused of child abuse involving one child, but they say it was an accident caused during the disciplining of the child, who has a behavioral disorder. (Courtesy of Aimee Kuckartz)

Aimee Kuckartz gives a soft, sad sigh when her children aren’t listening.

She and husband, Joshua, have eight of them, three who are adopted special-needs children, so that’s quite a feat.

She cheerfully tells a few who scamper by to play outside in the sunny yard of a Rio Rancho home and then turns again to talk about the nightmare she and her husband thought was over, the nightmare in which they lose everything, including the children.

That could still happen.

It’s been nearly two years since they used a belt and a cold shower on their then-6-year-old daughter – an adopted child diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, or RAD, an aggressive, antisocial condition – as a last-resort way to regain some control over her out-of-control behavior. The girl’s leg was fractured during the struggle with her mother in the shower.

What happened that Sept. 11, 2011, night, they have argued, was an accident, an unintended, unfortunate consequence of a consequence, not some malicious attack, not something criminal.

Their attorney, Lisa Torraco, has also argued that her clients were well within their rights as parents in administering discipline.

Since that night, as I’ve written in three previous columns, the Kuckartzes have mended their family back together. They’ve spent months in training and therapy and talking with other well-meaning parents who struggle daily to find ways to quell the violent and potentially self-harming tirades of adopted children that the state foster care system never prepared them for.

Lessons learned, hearts and bones healed, the family has moved on. Together.

But to the prosecutors of the 13th Judicial District, it is not enough.

The Kuckartz case has staggered through the system for 23 months. Trial dates and a variety of charges have come and gone and are, for the moment, dismissed.

“We thought it was over,” Aimee Kuckartz said. “We had hoped they realized the damage being done to our children. That this was persecution, not prosecution, over an accident.”

In January, 16 months after the incident and days after my first column on the family ran, District Attorney Lemuel Martinez announced that his office planned to take the case before a grand jury to seek first-degree felony child abuse indictments against both parents.

Such a charge carries a mandatory 18-year prison sentence.

The grand jury date was set for February. That, too, came and went.

And here we are in August, four weeks shy of two years since the incident.

Last week, Martinez said his office still intends to take the case before the grand jury once a few legal matters are sorted out. He says there have been some “problems” with prosecutor Barbara Romo’s handling of the case, which is apparently why he has added prosecutor Jennifer Romero as co-counsel.

(Romero, you may recall, ran against – and lost to – longtime District Attorney Kari Brandenburg of the 2nd Judicial District in Bernalillo County in last year’s primary election.)

Martinez dismisses the potential harm being done to the victim as the case continues on ad infinitum, saying that whatever has transpired since the incident does not mitigate the initial harm to the child.

“You have to take into consideration that the only people alleged to have hurt her in such a manner, causing great bodily harm, are the parents,” he said. “Nothing they’ve done since relieves the parents of allegedly breaking the child’s leg, twisting it, and other bruises she received.”

There is no statute of limitations for a child abuse charge that results in great bodily harm, he reminds me.

“We’re not prosecuting the child,” he said. “We’re prosecuting the parents.”

Oh, really?

“My daughter would never survive without us,” Aimee Kuckartz says of the troubled girl in question. “She just won’t.”

Her daughter, who is now 8, remains in therapy, she said, though not because of the incident but for what happened afterward while the girl was in emergency treatment foster care and now as she continues to fret over whether she might again lose Mommy and Daddy.

The other children, who range in age from 2 to 13, worry, too, Aimee Kuckartz said.

“We don’t talk about this in front of them,” she said. “They ask questions sometimes. It’s a lingering fear.”

The Kuckartzes lost their four-bedroom Rio Rancho home in May as the legal bills mounted to some $30,000. It’s expected they will have to come up with at least $15,000 more should they be indicted.

The family now lives in a fixer-upper owned by Joshua Kuckartz’s parents. They hold garage sales for extra money, receive food from food banks, ride bikes instead of the family car. It’s hard to stretch what money they make on the family’s vending machine business.

“I have $100 for groceries and gas after the bills are paid,” said Aimee Kuckartz, a stay-at-home mom who home-schools the children. “We’re barely scraping by.”

Still, when they don’t think of the impending doom of prosecution, they are happy.

They are together.

No one, least of all the Kuckartzes, believes that what happened that night in 2011 wasn’t a terrible thing. Taken in context, though, it appears that it was a terrible, singular thing that happened in what is otherwise a loving, happy family.

As in every child abuse case, it is incumbent upon the district attorney to find a balance between pursuing justice and protecting the already fragile young victim.

In this case, I say the best interest of the child lies in educating her parents, not incarcerating them, not tearing apart her family, not prolonging the nightmare.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

 

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