SANTA FE – The brutal slaying of 13-year old Jeremiah Valencia – allegedly at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend – cast a pall over the Roundhouse on Thursday as lawmakers gave tepid approval to a bill expanding the state’s child abuse penalties to include teenage victims.
Similar legislation has stalled in recent years, due largely to concern it could be misused by prosecutors, but the latest heart-wrenching death of a New Mexico child appeared to weigh heavily on lawmakers’ minds.
“Where were we that we allowed this to happen?” House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee Chairman Eliseo Alcón, D-Milan, asked Thursday before his five-member panel voted to advance the bill with no recommendation. “We have failed our children.”
He included the Legislature and several state agencies in his criticism, and he questioned why neighbors and relatives who may have seen signs of abuse apparently did not intervene in Valencia’s behalf.
Children, Youth and Families Secretary Monique Jacobson took issue with criticism of her agency’s actions in the case, saying it was “not accurate” to suggest CYFD had been unresponsive.
But she also acknowledged the need for systemic improvement, telling the Journal after Thursday’s hearing, “I am not going to defend the system when what happened happened.”
“We all have to do better,” Jacobson added.
The legislation, House Bill 100, would expand New Mexico’s “Baby Brianna’s Law,” which deals with intentional child abuse resulting in death.
Currently, individuals found guilty of such a crime involving children ages 11 or younger face a life sentence, while those convicted of a similar crime against a child ages 12 to 18 face up to 18 years in prison. Additional charges can also be levied by prosecutors.
The proposal has been among a slew of crime-related bills pushed by Gov. Susana Martinez in recent years but has met resistance in the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Several groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, raised concerns about the measure during Thursday’s hearing, saying it could be misused by prosecutors in cases of teen-on-teen violence.
They also expressed support for a different bill, House Bill 296, that would more broadly overhaul the state’s child abuse laws but expand the age range only for acts committed by a parent or guardian.
However, several relatives of victims urged lawmakers to support the legislation as currently drafted and questioned the age distinction in current state law.
“Child abuse against any child at any age should not be defended,” said Gary Mike, whose daughter, Ashlynne Mike, was sexually assaulted and killed on the Navajo Nation in 2016.
That case would not have been affected by the bill being debated at the Roundhouse, because Ashlynne Mike was 11 years old at the time of her death.
However, such a law could have been invoked in the harrowing case of Jeremiah Valencia, who was tortured and brutalized before being beaten to death, police say.
Thomas Ferguson, 42, is charged with child abuse resulting in death, tampering with evidence and conspiracy to commit tampering with evidence in the death of Valencia, the son of Ferguson’s girlfriend.
Investigators believe Ferguson beat Jeremiah to death in late November and had his 19-year old son, Jordan Nunez, and Jeremiah’s mother, 35-year-old Tracy Ann Pena, help dispose of the body. He’s also accused of ordering them to lie to law enforcement about Jeremiah’s whereabouts.
All three remain in jail on the same charges.
Santa Fe County deputies recently found Jeremiah’s remains buried in a plastic storage container off a state highway near Nambé. His identity was confirmed Thursday by the Office of the Medical Investigator.
Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged being shaken by the case.
“It just breaks my heart that the criminals that are responsible for his death could be walking the streets of New Mexico again,” Maestas Barnes said during Thursday’s hearing.
She also described criticism of the legislation as a “smoke screen” and said opponents had not approached her previously with concerns.
The bill still must clear two more House committees before reaching the House floor, and with less than two weeks before the 30-day legislative session ends, Maestas Barnes told the Journal it faces an “uphill battle” to make it to Martinez’s desk.
However, she said the legislation could move quickly if it’s deemed a priority by legislative leaders.