The state Children, Youth and Families Department’s internal investigation of how its employees handled the case of a 7-year-old girl, alleged to have been sex trafficked by relatives, found several lapses by CYFD employees, according to CYFD Cabinet Secretary Monique Jacobson.
Jacobson said the review also has led to major initiatives, including creation of a joint CYFD/State Police Child Safety Strike Force that would investigate all current and future cases with 10 or more referrals.
In a meeting with Journal editors and reporters on Monday, Jacobson said Gov. Susana Martinez ordered the strike force, which also would identify victims and possible locations where they are forced into sex trafficking.
Jacobson released results of CYFD’s internal review by top leaders of the department’s Protective Services division, who examined 25 prior referrals of the girl or members of her family going back to 2004. Jacobson said the CYFD’s response to the referrals was “not conducted in a thorough and diligent manner.”
The review found that safe house forensic interviews of the girl and her siblings were not conducted after the most serious of the allegations were made in November 2017 and January 2018.
Jacobson also said there was “inconsistent use of collateral contacts,” meaning that CYFD investigators didn’t talk to enough people beyond the adults in the family and the children; that the family was given only limited referrals to voluntary social services in the community, including therapy; and that an executive order requiring that CYFD supervisory staffers get involved any time a family gets three or more referrals to the agency was not done in accordance with policy and procedure.
The girl and her two brothers, ages 8 and 14, are now in CYFD custody.
Two adults, James Stewart and his wife, Teri Sanchez, both 37, were arrested earlier this month by special agents with the New Mexico Office of the Attorney General in connection with the case. Stewart was charged with human trafficking and promoting prostitution, and Sanchez was charged with abuse of a child and contributing to the delinquency of a child. They were being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center. A detention hearing for them that began Friday continued Monday and is expected to conclude today.
Few kids removed from homes
Jacobson described how both CYFD and local law enforcement often conduct parallel investigations into cases – that CYFD must determine whether a child is in danger or at risk while law enforcement is determining whether a crime has been committed. CYFD does not have the authority to remove a child from a family, but makes that recommendation to law enforcement or through a court order. In most cases, law enforcement will agree with CYFD and remove the child.
But of about 40,000 total calls of possible neglect or abuse made annually to the CYFD’s central intake, only about 1,300 children are removed from homes. That is because the bar is quite high, Jacobson said. CYFD and law enforcement must believe a child is at imminent risk. A child is then removed and placed in CYFD custody for 48 hours, at which time a hearing is held to determine whether the child or children should be returned home. Another hearing is held in 10 days, 60 days, three months and every six months thereafter. The bar becomes higher at each hearing.
Safe house reviews lacking
In the case of the 7-year-old and her brothers, teachers at the girl’s elementary school knew the girl and her family were homeless, lived in motels and that she and a brother were frequently unkempt, absent from school and fell asleep in class.
During a May 2017 safe house exam by Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputies, the girl made no allegations of sexual abuse. But last November, the girl arrived at school unwashed and smelling like urine, according to a referral. When a teacher helped her change clothing, blood stains were observed on the girl’s underwear.
Jacobson was critical of the fact that no safe house review was ordered at that time.
And in January 2018 school officials said the little girl was once dropped off at the school – possibly by a stranger – wearing high heels, a dress, press-on nails and makeup, according to a criminal complaint. She also 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. Again, no safe house review was conducted.
The Attorney General’s Office began investigating the case on April 19 after the 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.
Jacobson said one of her significant concerns was that there were no safe house forensic interviews done between May 4, 2017, and the April 25, 2018, after the AG’s Office began investigating. “That was very concerning to me because of the types of allegations that came out between those two dates.”
While law enforcement generally takes the lead on setting up safe house interviews, Jacobson said CYFD also has the ability to do so. “If it didn’t get done, and we believe it should have been done given the information, then we need to push for it to happen.”
CYFD did try to locate the family later in January, but was unable to do so, she said. “We were looking for them but could not find them,” she said.
However, Albuquerque police officers were asked to conduct a welfare check on the children and were able to locate them in a local motel. “I’m concerned we didn’t look hard enough,” Jacobson said, adding that it’s not clear whether CYFD was informed at the time that APD located them, or “why a determination was not made regarding a 48-hour removal of the children at that time.”
It wasn’t until the girl and her siblings were removed from the home in April by investigators with the AG’s Office that a forensic interview was conducted. At that time, the girl told investigators that Stewart would force her to perform sex acts on his friends and that he would get “weed and pipes and stuff.” She said Sanchez would take her to strip clubs and dress her in high heels, press-on nails and makeup.
Steps to reform
Four CYFD investigators were recently placed on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of the review.
She said CYFD will continue the discipline process, up to possible termination. A timeline shows a target date of June 11 for a notice of contemplative action and July 9 for a notice of final action. CYFD is waiting for footage from APD body cameras.
Other steps CYFD plans include:
• Emphasize the three-plus referral staffing executive order, making sure that regional and county office managers for CYFD continue to get a monthly report.
• Roll out sex trafficking training to all CYFD employees.
• Have CYFD’s Statewide Central Intake cross report possible sex trafficking cases to the Office of the Attorney General.
• Move forward with a restructure of Bernalillo County CYFD offices.