Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
In the years leading up to the arrest of a couple accused of prostituting a 7-year-old female relative, the Children, Youth and Families Department received 25 calls alleging emotional, physical and medical abuse and neglect of the girl and her two older brothers, according to documents filed by the New Mexico Office for the Attorney General.
Two of the referrals mentioned possible sexual abuse.
But, prosecutors say, the department’s workers only confirmed one allegation, and the children remained with the couple until last week.
Both the number of allegations and the lack of action now has CYFD Secretary Monique Jacobson saying she is concerned about how her department handled the children’s well being.
“My concerns are that I don’t believe that we did enough to protect this little girl,” Jacobson said.
The three children are now in CYFD custody.
On Thursday, special agents with the AG’s Office arrested Teri Sanchez and James Stewart, both 37, and booked them into the Metropolitan Detention Center.
Sanchez is charged with abuse of a child and contributing to the delinquency of a child, and Stewart is charged with human trafficking, promoting prostitution and other charges.
According to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court, the girl told special agents that Stewart had forced her to perform sex acts on his “friends” in exchange for “weed and pipes and stuff.” The complaint said both the girl and her 8-year-old brother told agents Stewart and Sanchez would encourage them to panhandle and pickpocket, often by themselves.
And according to court documents filed in the case on Friday, agents recently investigated Stewart for running a sex-trafficking operation out of two motel rooms, bringing the 7-year-old girl to visit known human traffickers and forcing Sanchez into prostitution as well.
Prosecutors with the Attorney General’s Office have asked the 2nd Judicial District Court to keep both Stewart and Sanchez behind bars until their trials, citing the severity of the offenses and a guilty plea in a prior misdemeanor child abuse case for Stewart.
Sanchez does not have a criminal history, but prosecutors say she should be kept in jail due to the severity of the offenses she is charged with and the allegations against her called in to CYFD. They wrote that Sanchez exposed the girl to the sex industry, alcohol and drugs, adding “the conduct and abuse of (the girl) is so pervasive and spans such a period that it could not have happened without the knowledge and conduct of both” Stewart and Sanchez.
A judge will conduct a hearing about the matter likely next week.
Referrals date back to 2004
In the motions for pre-trial detention, the Attorney General’s Office laid out a total of 25 referrals to CYFD that had been made on behalf of the children.
The referrals date back to 2004 for Sanchez and 2006 for Stewart, and some involve allegations of sexual molestation and physical abuse as well as neglect.
However, in Stewart’s case prosecutors say CYFD only substantiated one referral, concerning welts and bruises on one of the boys, on June 15, 2007. No proceedings to remove the children from the defendants’ care were initiated until April 24.
They said none of the referrals had been substantiated in Sanchez’s case.
For a referral to be substantiated, a CYFD investigator must show proof of abuse or neglect.
In an interview Friday, Jacobson said the department is conducting an internal review about the prior calls, but from the cases she’s seen she already has concerns about CYFD workers’ lack of action.
“There have been many prior cases where I have felt CYFD did the best job possible under incredibly difficult circumstances,” Jacobson said. “In this case, that’s not how I feel. I have many concerns, both with the number of referrals and the action, or lack of action, based on the information in those referrals.”
After the high-profile child abuse death of 9-year-old Omaree Varela in late 2013, Gov. Susana Martinez issued an executive order mandating that if a family is referred to CYFD three times, regardless of whether those referrals are substantiated, a higher-level staffer has to get involved in the investigation.
Jacobson said they are looking into whether that was done in this case.
“Based on those numbers it would have to happen multiple times,” Jacobson said. “That’s all part of our investigation to see what part of those policies and procedures were followed appropriately and which were not.”
The Albuquerque Police Department is also investigating its officers interactions with the family and the children.
According to a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court by the AG’s Office, law enforcement had encountered the family multiple times dating back to 2012.
Two of those cases involved suspicions of sexual abuse, but the children did not undergo a forensic interview – a specialized interview designed to bring out information about mistreatment or abuse.
APD spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said the department has since found that two of the cases were actually investigated by the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office and the corrected information is being passed along to the Attorney General’s Office.
“Mayor (Tim) Keller and Chief (Michael) Geier have ordered a review of APD’s interactions with the family and children, including whether detectives received any reports of potential criminal activity by the (adults),” Gallegos wrote in an email. “In addition, APD has reached out to the Attorney General’s Office and offered to share all information about APD’s interactions in this case.”
School nurse spurred action
Special agents first began investigating the case on April 19 after an elementary school nurse, who had received training from the AG’s Office on recognizing signs of trafficking, reported that the girl may be a victim, according to AG’s Office spokesman James Hallinan.
The girl and her brother hadn’t attended school since March 20.
Agents responded to the school the next day and were told the girl’s family was homeless and that she and her brother were frequently unkempt, absent from school and fell asleep in class.
School officials said the little girl was once dropped off at her elementary school – possibly by a stranger – wearing high heels, a dress, press-on nails and makeup, according to the complaint.
And, they said, the girl had made comments about Sanchez making her “hustle” and that the woman would take her to strip clubs and leave her alone while she got drunk.
Sanchez, who agents say “appeared to suffer from diminished mental capacity,” used to work at the Knockouts strip club, but the manager told agents she was fired a year ago for “excessive narcotic abuse, specifically methamphetamine.”
When interviewed, Sanchez’s mother told agents Stewart had also forced Sanchez into prostitution, according to court documents. And Sanchez told them Stewart kept her money and stole her disability checks.
As part of the investigation, agents surveilled the Motel 76, on Candelaria and Interstate 25, where Stewart, Sanchez and all three children were living in late April.
According to court documents, Stewart rented two rooms – one over the other – using one to traffic women and the other to house his wife and the kids.
During a two-day stakeout, agents saw Stewart move “abruptly” from room to room, one of which was solely occupied by two unidentified women.
Agents say nine to 11 men were seen coming and going from the women’s room, while the women would leave only “briefly” to smoke cigarettes on the balcony.
“It is probable (Stewart) is facilitating a human trafficking operation,” agents wrote in the documents.
When agents searched the upstairs room they found an address book – with over 20 “names, aliases and phone numbers” – drugs, pipes and acrylic nails. But they said the lower room, where Stewart presumably stayed with his wife and the children, had been “cleaned out.”
Agents also say Stewart admitted to a “personal association” with human traffickers who have been federally indicted.
And they say Stewart would bring the girl with him to the traffickers’ home and come back with money and new clothes on her.
While a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office would not confirm the identity of those traffickers, accused sex traffickers Cornelius and Danielle Galloway are listed as two of Stewart’s nine Facebook friends. The Galloways were federally indicted last summer on charges that they ran a sex-trafficking ring that included a juvenile.